James Anderson was awarded First Place in Memoir in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
I was shackled in restraints, riding in the backseat of an Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoner transport van lost in thought. I was thinking about how I got here, and I was filled with shame. Four months before, while hallucinating on LSD to the point of psychosis, I had taken the life of a young woman. Up to that point, I had never even been in a fight. When the judge’s gavel fell, I was convicted of murder and going to prison for 25 years to life as punishment. I was 17 years old.
There were three other boys in the van with me that morning. We were headed to Hillcrest, a juvenile offender facility in Salem, to pick up another youth bound for prison. Then we’d head south to the juvenile intake center in the basement of the Newport county jail, my final stopping point before prison.
“Anderson!” the transport officer yelled while pulling open the van’s sliding door at Hillcrest. “Get your ass out of the van! It’s your lucky day.”
I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what my future held, and lucky days didn’t seem to be part of it. I was terrified.
“ANDERSON, LET’S GO!” the officer said again, a little more impatiently—okay, a lot more impatiently. “OFF THE VAN!”
“I thought you guys were taking me to the beach,” I asked. Newport, where the jail was, was a coastal town. I was attempting to make a joke. “Am I staying here instead?” My sarcasm was a coping mechanism; I was trying to mask the fear I was feeling.
“Oh we’re going to the beach alright,” he responded. “But your feet won’t be touching any sand. We’re picking up Downing, and since you’re the only one on the van who doesn’t have a sex offense, we’re chaining her next to you. Like I said, lucky day huh? She just copped 10 years on an assault charge. Looks like both you kids have some serious time to serve. Now get out here and stand next to the rear tire.”
With cold ankle chains dragging behind me, I shuffled out of the van. After a few minutes, the girl they were there to transport came out of Hillcrest. She was flanked by two guards, and she wore a jumpsuit similar to mine. It was white, oversized, and it had the word “prisoner” emblazoned down one leg in bright orange paint like that of a safety cone. The neon color gave the officers something to aim at when they shot us, should we attempt to escape. The jumpsuit wasn’t the only thing we had in common. Like me, she had her hands and ankles cuffed, and she had belly chains that wrapped around twice, securing her wrists tightly to her waist.
The whole thing, at least in my mind, felt like a scene in a movie: A tall, beautiful girl, with long flowing brown hair, approaching with purpose as the sun shined behind her and leaves fluttered and danced around her ankles. But in reality, she was just a girl in an oversized jumpsuit trudging towards us. Her cinematic slow motion walk had more to do with the shackles restricting her movement than it did with any Hollywood effects.
For a brief moment though, I managed to forget that I’d be spending the next several decades locked up with men who reeked of piss, musty armpits, and breath that always seemed to smell like tuna fish. These were the smells I’d grown accustomed to during my four-month stay in county jail, and I doubted personal hygiene would improve once I got to prison. Compared to that future, this girl was shining like a dream.
“Downing, this is Anderson,” the transport officer said. “You’ll be sitting next to him for the trip.”
“You’re not a freak, are you?” she hissed at me as they connected our belly chains together. “Because these pigs got another thing comin’ if they think I’m gonna ride next to a sex offending, rapist weirdo for hundreds of miles.”
“I don’t have a sex-offense!” I said defensively.
“Sure,” she replied. “That’s what they all say.”
Her abrasiveness caught me off guard, and I was at a loss for words. Before she spoke I thought she was just a great-looking girl who seemed completely out of place wearing a prison jumpsuit—which was still entirely true—but her hardened attitude neutralized good looks in a heartbeat.
“He’s not a sex offender, Downing,” he said. “Lose the attitude and make nice because we have a long trip ahead of us. By the way, it isn’t hundreds of miles; it’s only about ninety to Newport.”
“See, I told you I wasn’t a—” I began to say, before being cut off.
“Anderson, do I need to warn you about keeping your hands to yourself?” The transport officer turned to me and asked.
“Good man. Sounds like we’re gonna get along just fine then.”
Shackled as I was, keeping my hands to myself was not a problem. Clearly he knew this. I was convinced his warning was meant to keep her from dressing me down further, a diversion tactic for which I was grateful.
After being secured together at the hip, we shimmied our way up and into the van. The experience solidified the notion that my freedom was gone. Really gone. The fact that I was bound for prison for longer than I’d been alive was something I struggled to wrap my 17-year-old mind around. I couldn’t understand how I went from being a perfectly normal teen to a convicted murderer. Murderer. It didn’t seem real, yet I knew it was. I also knew that every minute riding in the van meant I was being taken further away from home. Further from normalcy. Further from anything I had ever hoped to be.
“Alright kids,” the officer said. “We’re gonna go over a couple rules before we get on the road, First, keep the noise down. Second, if you have to go to the bathroom, hold it ‘cause we’re not stopping for that shit. Third, if you have any questions, save ’em for the staff we’re dropping you off with. They get paid to answer questions, we don’t. Everyone understand?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Good.”
I felt anxious and awkward when I sat next to her, but it was also a distraction from my own thoughts. The anxiety I felt came not just from our terrible situation, but also from feeling like she was a twitch or two away from self-imploding. The awkwardness came because each time the van would hit a bump in the road our arms would unintentionally make contact. Whenever this happened we’d both stiffen, and she’d shoot a sideways glance at me as if to say, “Don’t even think about getting fresh, perv!” I wasn’t thinking about it, but I recognized her abrasiveness as an overall mistrust for the opposite sex.
After a few of these glances I tried to scoot further away, but the chains made that impossible. For the most part, we rode toward Newport in silence, but there were a few brief exchanges.
It started when she asked me how much time I was doing. I told her I’d just been sentenced to 25 years to life.
“Dude, you haven’t even been alive that long. How can they give you that much time?”
I shrugged. I didn’t understand the law, and I was oblivious to sentencing mechanisms. My court appointed lawyer had only met with me a total of three times, and never for more than ten minutes at a time. He failed to counsel me as to what lay ahead.
She prodded further. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Are those other three really sex-offenders?”
“I guess so. That’s what he said anyways.” I nodded toward the transport officer.
Eventually I asked a question of my own. “How old are you?”
“I’m 16,” she responded.
“I’m hungry,” I continued. “Do you think they’re gonna get us breakfast?”
“Nope,” she said. “Probably nothing until we get to Newport.”
The other boys in the van tried to get in on the conversation several times, usually by blurting out crass statements that didn’t warrant her response, or with comments that left them arguing with each other.
“Dang! Homegirl’s got some long ass hair!” one boy commented.
“Hey . . . psst . . . hey girl!” another boy chimed in a few seconds later. “What’s up, chica? Do you wanna see my—?”
“—Man, shut up fool!” a third boy interjected before turning his attention to her. “Don’t listen to him; he’s a dumbass. Hey, your name’s Downing right? That’s cool, that’s cool. That’s a pretty name. I bet your first name is even prettier. Maybe when we get to—”
She had finally heard enough.
“—Shut the fuck up you ugly ass, rapist freaks! Don’t say anything to me. I don’t talk to sex offenders, and the cop said it himself—all of you guys except him are weirdos . . . so fuck off!”
The guard driving the van erupted in laughter loud enough for us to hear. His colleague in the passenger seat gave him a disapproving look that clearly called his professionalism into question. Silence ensued. For a while.
After about 15 minutes, the boys sitting behind us regained their courage and took turns teasing me. They called me lame. A dork. A zit-faced geek. They said I was packin’ a tiny weenie, and that I wouldn’t know what to do with a girl if I was left alone with one for a thousand years. And worst of all, they told me I was from a family that didn’t give even the tiniest of shits that I was going to prison for life. They didn’t know me. They didn’t know my family. All they knew was that this girl had put them down and it was easier for them to take it out on me than her. I didn’t respond to their teasing, but I’ll say this: I felt slightly comforted when she leaned over and rubbed her forearm against mine—purposely this time. It was a huge moment, and it came unexpected. The message in it was simple: I wasn’t alone.
“Don’t listen to those rapos,” she whispered. “They’re just mad ‘cause they’re all gonna get chemically castrated for being piece of shit freaks! My name’s Sophia.”
When Sophia and I arrived at the Newport intake center, we were separated, strip-searched, handed gray sweatpants, a white t-shirt, socks, and orange flip-flops. Once dressed, we were escorted to an observation cell. We spent the next several hours together, but we hardly interacted. We were each alone with our thoughts. The cell was a square enclosure with heavily scratched Plexiglas walls, two seats, and not much else. It was called the Fish Tank. Sophia and I were the fish, so all the other kids crowded around the tank to give us the once over.
The purpose of our stay in Newport’s juvenile intake center was to have our intelligence, health, attitude, sense of remorse, and likelihood for rehabilitation assessed in order to determine how we had chosen the wrong path. These “assessments” would be the first entries in my new life journal: a DOC case management file. I’d only be there for a few months before being sent to one of Oregon’s many adult penitentiaries, a place where being locked up in a cage all day was the rehabilitation.
Sophia and I didn’t talk much at first, but when two sack lunches fell through the Fish Tank’s tray slot we opened up a bit over dry peanut butter sandwiches and celery sticks. At one point, Sophia told me she was lactose intolerant, and asked if I wanted her carton of milk. I’ve always loved milk. I quickly said yes. My hope was that it would taste better than the watered down milk they served in the Marion County jail. That stuff was horrible. When I reached for her carton of milk, Sophia pulled it back and said, “So I guess this means we’re friends, right James?”
Because we had arrived at the intake center together, we were paired up as study partners for the duration of our stay. Each day, a few dozen youth offenders would sit in a small classroom to complete individual assessments and study packets. Most of the boys disregarded their packets and instead flirted with Sophia. The three from our ride in the van knew better though, and they did everything they could to avoid her. Sophia handled the attention from the new boys just as she had on the transport van—by flinging confidence-shattering obscenities at them—until they left her alone.
In the afternoons, we’d walk in tight circles around a 10′ x 10′ room appropriately called The Cube. The rules of The Cube required that we be in constant motion, and any form of physical contact meant immediate loss of our recreational privileges. Walking around The Cube was one of the few “recreational privileges” we had. Knowing this, and not wanting to lose the allotted 45 minutes out of our cells, Sophia and I kept a safe distance between us while we walked. Every few laps or so we’d stop and do a round of push-ups. She could always do more push-ups than I could, and she always took delight in pointing it out to anyone observing. This came to be our daily ritual: laps and push-ups.
We were never alone together. On the occasions that we were outside of our cells, the staff was always a step or two away guiding us through a checklist of behavioral expectations. The staff focused especially on Sophia and me to ensure we didn’t get “too close.” I understood the scrutiny, but really we were just two terrified kids who happened to form a friendship over similar situations and a carton of milk.
When we weren’t doing schoolwork, or walking in The Cube, we were locked in our cells. Oddly enough, they had placed Sophia and me in cells right next to each other at the far end of the top tier. Sometimes at night, when the noise would settle down, I’d hear muffled sobs coming through the air vent that connected her cell with mine. She often cried herself to sleep. I wondered if she heard me doing the same.
Whenever I’d hear her crying, I’d climb on top of my stainless steel sink and talk to her for hours through the vent.
“Sophia,” I’d whisper. “Why are you crying?”
She would always answer. Perched atop our sinks, we’d share deep feelings of remorse for the poor choices we both had made. We’d talk about life, and about how it didn’t feel like there was light at the end of our tunnels. We even questioned if we deserved to see the light. I look back now with a clear understanding that guilt was consuming us both. We learned fairly quickly that we could lean on each other for support, especially when our family members wouldn’t understand, or couldn’t understand, the things that we were going through. I couldn’t fix her, and she couldn’t fix me, but the commonality of our situations provided us each with a small measure of comfort in our new world of clanging cell doors and constant noise.
Whenever it felt like I couldn’t hold the sadness inside anymore, I’d tell Sophia how badly I wanted to apologize to my victim, and to my mom, and to the many others that I had disappointed. She often spoke of the many regrets she had, particularly the assault on a fellow teen that earned her the 10-year prison sentence. Sometimes, when all the important topics had been exhausted, we’d fumble around for something of substance to talk about. Sometimes we came up blank . . .
“Sophia, my feet are really hurting from standing up here.” I’d say.
“I know, mine too.” She’d respond. “Do you want to go to sleep?”
“No, do you?”
Instead, we’d shuffle our awkward positions atop the sink and wait for the other to say something. Sometimes she’d half sing/half hum a tune that I could never recognize, but through the vent it always sounded soothing. I’d close my eyes, rest my ear against the vent, and pretend that I wasn’t there. I’m sure she did the same whenever I shared a new piece of poetry I’d written with a smuggled piece of pencil and a scrap of tucked away paper.
Talking through the vents was against the intake center’s rules, but we did it almost every night. The bond we formed easily outweighed the minor punishments we faced when caught—losing our after dinner snack, or not being allowed to use the computer lab, for example. Usually we’d be able to hear staff coming ahead of time by the distinct sound of their jangling keys. The noise would send us scrambling off the sinks and into our beds where we’d fake being asleep for a few minutes until the coast was clear. Afterwards, when the sound of their keys faded, we’d jump out of bed and resume our conversations.
“James, are you there?”
“Yeah Sophia, I’m here.”
We were caught talking only a few times, but it never seemed like that big of a deal. Those consequences were minimal compared to what we already faced. Collectively, we had at least 35 years in prison to serve, and neither of us was eligible for time off with good behavior.
After our 120-day assessment period ended, we were transferred to different adult penitentiaries to begin serving hard time. The letters we wrote to each other kept the fibers of our friendship intact.
My letters to her were written mostly from the cells of segregation units. Upon arriving at prison, I was assigned to live in a cell with a predatory sex offender. I quickly found myself the object of that person’s focus and ended up fighting him repeatedly just to remain unviolated. In prison, “fight or flight” is the basic outline for how conflicts are resolved. Fighting wins you respect amongst peers because it shows bravery. Even if you lose. To take flight, or to walk away from a conflict, earns you scorn from those same peers, as well as the title of coward. I already felt like a coward for the crime that I had committed, and it wasn’t a good feeling. Fighting him felt like my only option. The result of standing up for myself meant several six-month stints in twenty-four-hour lock down for disciplinary purposes.
Her letters to me were scribble-scratched from the women’s psychiatric ward. She was much younger than the other female prisoners, and they’d taunt and tease her until she had enough and acted out. She explained in her letters that the psych nurses were feeding her a cornucopia of pills. In my opinion, the pills seemed to put her in a fog. I found it difficult to accept that the letters I received were from the Sophia I knew—the girl who seemed to effortlessly outwit nearly everyone in a room. Sometimes, during the rougher moments, her letters would arrive looking like they had been written in hieroglyphics rather than the eloquent missives I came to expect from her. It left me feeling sad. I wanted to help her. I couldn’t. All I could do was keep writing with the hope that my words had the power to carry her through the fog.
About four years into our sentences, the seemingly unimaginable happened: We met up again when she was transported to the facility in which I was incarcerated. A new women’s prison was being built and, in the meantime, the DOC temporarily turned one of the men’s cell blocks at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution into a housing unit for female prisoners. Even though contact between male and female prisoners was strictly prohibited, every now and then we’d see each other somewhere on the compound and wave. Those few moments of eye contact breathed life into our friendship.
Once, we even found ourselves in the prison visiting room at the same time. After the visiting period had ended, we both said goodbye to our loved ones and retreated to the gender specific exits at opposite ends of the room, as the rules required. Citizens left first. Prisoners were to be strip-searched and then escorted back to their respective units.
But Sophia had other plans. As soon as the guards weren’t looking, she smiled, raised her eyebrows, and then quickly raised her shirt up, flashing her breasts at me. She wasn’t wearing a bra. I was shocked, much as I was the first day I met her when we were shackled together outside the van at Hillcrest. My eyebrows shot up in sudden surprise, I smiled, and then I noticed one of the guard’s bee-lining for Sophia with a pinched look of determination on his face.
Before she had a chance to tuck her blue t-shirt back into her denim jeans, the guard grabbed her by the arm and propelled her out of the room. As she left, the other men applauded. I will never forget the triumphant smile on her face that day, or for that matter, that hers have been the only breasts I’ve seen in what has now been more than 20-years of incarceration.
One of the men who enjoyed Sophia’s “show” was Steve Nelson. Steve had been with Sophia and me in Newport and had been on the receiving end of several of her outbursts. Justifiably so, if I remember correctly. When Sophia was escorted out of the visiting room he said to me, “Hey, that’s Sophia! I remember that bitch from the juvenile place in—” I cut him off immediately.
“She’s not a bitch, Steve. Don’t call her that again.”
His comment could have easily been shrugged off as immature and denigrating sexism, but I knew at the same time calling her my friend meant standing up for her integrity.
A few days after the “flashing incident,” I received an apology letter in the mail from Sophia. In the letter, she explained thinking it would be a “nice little treat” in lieu of the fact that I was girlfriend-less, even though she and I were nothing more than friends. She also mentioned that it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to aim a couple of nicely sculpted middle fingers at the DOC. It made me laugh. It made me realize that her stays in the psych ward hadn’t robbed her of her feisty spirit.
In my letter back to her, I thanked her for her bravery and told her I respected her efforts at fighting the powers that be with such impressive methods of creativity. Our friendship continued without skipping a beat.
In the years that followed, we wrote letters describing our monotonous routines, our failures, our frustrations, our hopes and dreams. We’d even take turns comparing the petty details of grievances we harbored toward staff and peers. Sometimes, in our letters, we even dared to hope. This was especially true when the state’s strict, mandatory-sentence law, Measure 11, went back before the citizens for possible repeal. If the measure was overturned, the state would have remanded us to juvenile court to be resentenced under guidelines that took into account the fact that we were young and therefore capable of change, guidelines that ensured we’d get counseling, treatment, and other forms of rehabilitative programming. Our mandatory sentence assumed that decades in an adult penitentiary would be the best way to straighten out an impressionable 16 and 17 year old.
For the first time in many years, we allowed ourselves to hope. We vowed to make the most of a second chance if afforded one. The law was not repealed.
Sophia’s stay at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute lasted a year and a half. When construction for the new women’s prison was completed, she and the rest of the female prisoners were transferred to its location in Wilsonville to complete the remainder of their sentences.
After 10 years, Sophia’s sentence was finally up. At 26, she paroled to her hometown of Amity—a word that means friendship. I wondered if I’d be part of an experience she hoped to put behind her. I shouldn’t have doubted our friendship though, because the letters still came. They were just shorter and filled with different news than before.
After a while, she encouraged me to call her on her new cell phone. It was the first one she’d ever had, and I remember her excitement as she tried to explain just how far technology had come during the 10 years she was imprisoned. I was happy for her, but it made me feel alone. It made me feel left behind.
And then we drifted apart. She had her life back: a new job, a new apartment, and the freedom to roam and experience new things. She had most likely found new friends and new ways to tell all the new boys to screw off when they tried to get fresh. I had the same old stuff, the same complaints, the same constricted life.
Our letters got shorter. The time between them got longer. Eventually her phone number changed. Our connection was broken.
Then one night, three years after Sophia’s release, I turned on the television in my prison cell and saw her mug shot staring back at me on the evening news. It was obvious that she had been crying when it was taken, and it reminded me of hearing her cry through the cell vents 13 years before.
The story was breaking news: Sophia had been arrested for accidentally running over four high school kids on Lancaster Drive in front of Chemeketa Community College in Salem. Three of the kids died at the scene and the fourth was in a coma at Salem Regional Hospital. My heart broke for those kids, and it broke for Sophia.
The newswoman reported that Sophia had been seen driving her Chevy Blazer erratically, allegedly under the mind-altering mix of Ativan and alcohol. She also said Sophia appeared “out of it” when officers arrived at the scene, according to the news report.
She concluded the story by stating, “29-year-old Sophia Downing, a convicted felon with a violent past, is being held in the Marion County Jail facing decades in prison.”
What had happened to the young woman so excited to start life fresh and make good for herself? What happened to all those nights we spent talking through the vent about making the most of a second chance? What happened to the vow we both had made to make our families proud again? What happened to proving to everyone that we were more than the sum of the worst two minutes of our lives? Those conversations were real. They were authentic.
Yet, if anyone could understand that terrible things happen while under the influence of powerful drugs, it was me.
Others may define her by her very worst moments, but I believe in her. I believe in the redemptive value of standing by someone’s side, particularly during the rougher moments in life. After all, it was during one of those rough moments when our friendship was sealed, and I try to always keep that in mind.
After the initial shock of her arrest wore off, I decided to send her some words of hope. I encouraged her to keep her head up, and tried my best to assure her that I’d be by her side no matter what. In this case, it means supporting her through her 25-year sentence.
I’ve been writing her at least once a month for the past six years now. It’s not always easy. Her letters still come, and when they do they’re penned through the fog of her ever changing medications. I do my best to decipher the words she shares, and then I write her back.
When I do, I always share one of the following quotes with her;
“Failure is a bruise, not a tattoo.”
And . . .
“There’s something beautiful about having the chance to rewrite your future.”
These were the words given to me by a close friend during one of my low points, and they gave me hope. Nowadays, my hope is that she sees meaning in them as well, and that she finds the strength to apply that meaning to her own life.
I will never forget her words to me that day in the Fish Tank at Newport when I reached for the carton of milk she had offered. She held it back and asked, “So I guess this means we’re friends, right James?”
“Yes, Sophia, we’re friends.”