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"The Look...A Prison Story

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The Look

  “Prison consists of routine…and then more routine” That’s what Morgan Freeman’s character Red said in The Shawshank Redemption. This couldn’t have been any truer for Green Haven Correctional Facility. I did ten years inside, 41 months in the “Hav” and 5 years and 8 months in Fishkill, so sometimes the years seem all the same. The year escapes me, but in my guesstamation, it more than likely was the summer of 1995 or 96, so I was roughly two and a half to three years into my sentence. My day started off like hundreds before it. I went to the mess hall and ate the usual fare. After breakfast one has to go to their respective program or back to their cellblock. Today, I would be going back to my cell. My health was very poor and I was going to special doctors in the then St. Clare’s Hospital…hurrah! Not many things break the drudgery of prison life, but an outside trip was always exciting. I would be handcuffed and shackled. I would have the infamous “Black Box” placed over the handcuffs. But, none of this mattered to me. I was going on the road! I would be getting some fresh air. Nonsense! One would think. How could you be getting some fresh air if you’re going to be in a Correction’s van? Maximum security prisons have some of the worst ventilation. The ventilation even becomes more nonexistent the higher up you go on the tiers, couple that with the fact that it was the summer time, mix in that officer’s would often close the upper tier windows out of pure spite and you have a sweatbox and a breeding ground for any airborne contagion, since the air was so stagnant…


  I heard the faint, but steady tap of footsteps as I waited for the officer to come and escort me to the van. I strategically placed my mirror part way out my cell and squinted down the tier. If any officer saw me with my mirror out, it would mean a sure ticket.  I was hoping against hope for it not to be the c.o. I disliked and dreaded….but, it was. He was about 6’0 or possibly 6’1, about 180lbs or so. He had a severe military buzz cut that almost made his hair look like a Chia Pet He went about his job with great enthusiasm and sternness. When he looked at you, it seemed as if he were assessing a lowly private in his platoon, who happened to be a State prisoner….In short he was a head of the highest caliber….He appeared in front of my cell, motioned for my cell to be cracked and we were off to the frisking area.


  Now came the part that vexed me to my core.” Run your fingers through your hair he commanded. I did as instructed and waited. “Open your mouth and run your fingers along the inside ”Umm nice he droned creepily as if he derived some sort of sick pleasure from the fact that my teeth were nice looking “Are those dentures? he queried in his authoritarian tone. “No sir” I answered back. “It looks like your mother taught you something, he said with a derisive undertone. I remembered feeling like a lowlife incapable of being human in this man’s eyes. Then came more emasculation “Bend over and spread your cheeks” he said almost robotically. This is probably the most demeaning thing about incarceration, having to bend over and let an officer look at yourcrack, If people wanted to keep coming back and being subjected to this indignity…..fine! This would be my last time in prison.


  There’s really not much to describe about the trip to Manhattan. Upstate is exactly what it implies….Upstate. Mountains, grass, expanses of land, a smattering of houses, a store here and there, some people, the highway. Did I mention mountains? Upstate New York is very picturesque, it even becomes more so when you’ve been bidding for a while. Just to be able to get outside the prison walls and fences was a blessing that few got to experience. Imagine being inside 10, 15, 20, 25 years and never getting the opportunity to take at the very least a ride in the correction’s van, and going somewhere…..anywhere for just a little while. I’ve heard it said that prisoners don’t deserve fresh air. Indeed, if you look at it through the perspective that all prisoners are incorrigible and have no redeeming qualities…you would be right. But, if one were to bear in mind that not everybody in prison is there for a heinous crime, your outlook would be altered accordingly.


  We arrived at St. Clare’s sometime in the early afternoon. Very few places are more depressing than prison…St. Clare’s hospital was the exception. The waiting room was filled with many of the drug using residents of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, some of whom I even recognized from my countless years on the streets. It was amazing how some of these same people who I used to speak to…who I used to get high with, who were evidently still using looked at me as if I were the worst offender in the world. It didn’t make it any better how a prisoner was paraded through the hospital/menagerie to be viewed by anyone and everyone. I would surmise that the individuals who by the Grace of God had somehow eluded prison felt somewhat validated by seeing me in irons. They could always point at their own miserablelives as being fruitful since they weren’t the ones doing time. The worst part was just knowing in my heart that some of the same young men I saw that day would never have the chance to even make it Upstate because they would die on the streets without anyone there to love them or see them pass.


  After being weighed, I was aghast to find out that I was ten pounds lighter than the last time I was here, which made me about 175, down from the 220 that I used to be. There had to be some sort of mistake! That scale had to be off I rationalized as my hopes for recovering from my ailments took a big hit. The doctor told me very little by way of what he thought I was suffering from. If one were to look for warmth, compassion and understanding from St. Clare’s in those days, you would probably have had a better chance of seeing Elvis again. I remember feeling vulnerable, hopeless, and not a little depressed while there that day. And, then not to long from now I would have to go back to the violent, roach infested, one second at a time place called Green Haven.


  It was late now, probably around 4:30 0r 5pm, and we were in transit. The officer took the scenic route back. I remember passing by the Diamond District, and seeing the throngs of people gamboling to and fro, seemingly without a care to think of. Though I was in the van I still felt connected to the outside world. It was just an awesome rush being that close to civilization again…..if even for a moment. Though it was a foregone conclusion that my trip would culminate at the entrance of the prison, I wasn’t ready for it to end. There were just too many things to see, so much vibrancy of life to absorb. It would be another 6 or 7 years before I even had a chance to make parole and I had no idea when my next outside trip would be. The shadows of twilight began to slowly creep in, and we were somewhere close to 59th St now. That sinking feeling that fills an inmate’s being when returning from an outside trip was threatening to drown me completely. But, I knew that I had to continue to be strong if I was ever going to see my family again…if I was ever going to be free again.


  We were stopped at a red light, and I decided to take in all the life that I could. I turned to my left, and looked out the window. And, that’s when I saw her. She was standing on the corner with her back to me. I couldn’t assess her exact age, but she wasn’t old and wasn’t a spring chicken either. She was dressed for the streets in a dress just short enough to be sexy without being trashy. She had a handbag that she held by the straps, with the bag itself dangling loosely at her side. She was a thick bodied woman with anthat only a black woman could have, juicy and round. When she adjusted her stance, I could see the jiggle in those cheeks. She stood there expectantly as if she were waiting for someone…..maybe for anyone. Was she a streetwalker? I couldn’t say, and I wasn’t trying to judge her, it was more of an observation and perception rather than an exact analysis. I’ve always had a strong aura that drew others to me. In the few seconds that it took for me to assess her, she turned around and looked directly across the street and into the van, and we made eye contact…


  She had a round, friendly face, meaning her face was full. She didn’t seem to be suffering from lack of food, and she didn’t have that bottom feeder, emaciated, bony cheek bones look that  many a woman on the make have…if she were on the make.  I’m no judge over mankind, I merely made mention of her appearance to give you an accurate description of how she looked to this man. What was amazing was the way that she looked at me. It was a look that melted away all the stress that my few years inside had added to my life. It was a look that made me feel as if she understood all the struggles that incarceration brings…She made me feel that she understood whatever it was that led me to go to prison…In that look. There was something in her eyes. Was it pain? Whatever it was I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly, but I had seen it enough times to know that it was a look somewhere between despair and hope…between sorrow and grief. I knew that she could see that I understood – whatever she had been through or was going through.  I saw humanity in those eyes that day so many years ago. It was a look of humanity that one seldom gets to see behind the wall.  As the light turned green and the van began to drive away, we continued looking at each other. I waved to her as much as I could through the constraints of the “Black Box” covering the handcuffs. I looked at her and all that she had to offer as a woman until I could no longer turn my neck to look behind me. I’ve often recounted this “encounter” but never in a story. Yet, every time I think of that day and that look that was shared between two needy souls, the remembrance is far beyond the picture that I’ve painted for you. “Prison consists of routine…and then more routine” The stark and visceral truth that is prison life was voiced with a matter of fact realism by Morgan Freeman’s character Red that I probably pondered thousands of times in my ten years inside. I saw a man get his throat slashed with a can top. I saw a man beaten so badly the Co’s thought he was hit by a car on the walkway. I remember when Jazz was murdered in Green Haven‘s yard in 1996. There were suicides. There were stories of rape through the whisper stream. There were angry, spiteful, cruel Co’s who were just as, if not more feral, incorrigible, and despicable than the men that they housed…But, on that one day I was looked at by that woman as if I were more than a name and a number, as if I were actually human. It was a look….that made my spirit come back to life, and in some not to small way helped me to crawl my way through the cesspool of prison…much in the same way that Andy Dufresne  crawled through the sewer/underbelly of Shawshank prison…coming out free and clean on the other side….


"The Look...A Prison Story"










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