The letter came on a Tuesday. Joe didn’t even wait for the rest of the mail to be passed out before retreating from the room with the envelope in his hand. It was thinner than I had expected. Like with a college admission response, I took brevity as a bad sign. Joe sat down on Willy’s bed and without ceremony tore the staple from the envelope and removed two sheets of typed correspondence. After a moment’s regard he flung himself sideways and head-butted Willy in the ribs.
“One fifty-one!” he cried. “One hundred fifty-one months, down from 216!” His commutation had been granted.
Joe wallowed on Willy’s bed, waving the letter like a winning lottery ticket and mussing up the sheets. He flashed the papers to the small crowd that had gathered, so we could see the numbers for ourselves. None of the men explicitly offered their congratulations, but they grinned hard and bobbed their heads a lot, which suited Joe fine; he was too delirious with joy to either notice or care. Someone asked by how many years exactly had Joe’s sentence been reduced. Joe himself didn’t know. Contrary to Hollywood’s depictions of the justice system, prison terms are handed down not in years but, rather anticlimactically, in months. Someone (not Joe) did the math and arrived at a conclusive figure. The court had knocked five years and five months off Joe’s sentence. Joe was even more ecstatic.
“When are we going to celebrate?” he asked once the crowd had gone. I turned from where I’d been probing my ears with tweezers in the mirror stuck to my locker. The circumstances of my own bondage unchanged, I’d resumed my quiet battle with ear hair.
“We can celebrate later,” I said. My eyes shifted to Willy still with his hands in his lap. “We’ll celebrate when Willy’s relief comes.”
In his excitement Joe had forgotten it was only two months ago that his friend had received his own letter from the court, the second of two such letters, stating in characteristically unfeeling legalese that Willy did not qualify for commutation. Joe sobered and smoothed the rumpled sheets. He turned to his friend and offered that he too would surely be granted relief soon.
“Very soon,” I lied. “We’ll all be celebrating real soon.”
The next day Joe awoke early and hit the track. He walked for two hours and returned sweaty, pink-faced, and chipper; his enthusiasm for physical renewal lasted almost a week. Willy meanwhile grew despondent, even more so than when he’d received his last rejection. He began sleeping through lunch, napping during the day, snacking late into the night. His commissary purchases became increasingly junky. One haul turned up fig bars, vanilla wafers, barbecue chips, pork rinds, ten Snickers (the limit), and two royal-blue bottles of milk of magnesia.
Joe sympathetically tempered his joy. He allowed himself to become Willy’s sounding board and listened for hours as his friend, swigging milk of magnesia from the bottle, unloaded every gaudy injustice of his criminal case—the bad plea deal, the inflated quantity of dope, the rat-friends who sold him out. Joe listened patiently, tutting in the appropriate places. He suggested to Willy that he apply for commutation again but under the newest reform law, the amendment to which Joe himself applied. Willy demurred; the amendment pertains only to nonviolent drug offenses and his case, while not explicitly violent, involved gun possession. Still Joe urged his friend to give it a shot, file the paperwork. He also suggested he include with the forms a heartfelt plea to the judge for mercy. This is where I came in.
Months ago when Joe applied for relief he submitted with his application a similar letter, which I had helped write. He seemed to believe it had an impact on the judge. I’m not so sure. Likely the judge, who undoubtedly receives many such letters, followed his own reasoning and complex arithmetic, totaling assets from one column, deducting deficits from the other, adjusting for the phase of the moon. Joe’s commutation response offered no hint as to what these formulas might be or how the decision to grant reprieve was reached. My own judge gave no explanation for why he settled on 144 months. Why not 168 months—14 years? Or 192 months—16 years? Or the guidelines‘ recommended 228 months—19 years? Nobody knows how these things really work. Even those of us who have mired in the system’s cogs are no more wiser to its inner workings. Justice is a black art practiced by black-robed men; the mysteries of their alchemy terrify us.
Nevertheless I agreed to write Willy’s letter. He and Joe conferred and together they penned a rough draft of what they thought such a letter ought to say. I tried not to grimace at their effort: Now, Your Honor, I’m not saying I didn’t commit a crime, but I can’t help but feel I was a scapegoat for the simple fact that I’m serving a 30-year sentence for my codefendants’ going home free.
“I’m not sure this is what the judge wants to hear,” I said looking up from the crinkled sheet.
“Change it up however you need to,” Joe said. “Just, you know, use big words; make it sound good.”
I recall my lawyer giving me similar advice when he told me I’d be asked to make a statement at sentencing. There were two other cases on the docket that afternoon, a probation violation and a petty fraud crime. One by one we the defendants were called before the court, and the judge asked us what we had to say for ourselves. With hands clasped and heads lowered, the two men before me elucidated at length on matters of responsibility and righting wrongs and second chances. The judge saved my case for last. The speech I’d prepared and rehearsed the night before was identical to the other men’s. Regardless, my fanciful apology went unrecited. As soon as I opened my mouth I collapsed into racking sobs. My shoulders heaved, my nose ran. The judge shifted uncomfortably, perhaps impatiently, in his chair. So unintelligible was my blubbering I wondered what if anything the court reporter had been able to transcribe.
The prosecutor was unmoved. “He’s only sorry because he got caught!” she had hissed, and rightfully so. Our indiscretions and dirty misdeeds don’t much bother us until they’re exposed to the light of public scrutiny. We learn what is acceptable not by peering inward but by looking outward, and only then, after consequence, does remorse follow.
Among my regrets: I regret (selfishly) all that I lost—my career, my relationship, my financial security and animal comforts. I regret (selfishly still) all the time I wasted—years burned away in prison, 144 months of ash heaped atop the ash of hundreds of hours more spent collecting pictures and wiping my seed from the floor—that might have been put toward a more industrious cause. I regret hurting my family. I regret that my mother cannot bear to visit me.
And what of the victims, that dimly-lit and fathomless crowd? I am cowardly grateful for the miles of ethernet that distanced us. I will never understand precisely what role I played in their suffering, and I don’t want to. I’ve found reasons enough to change.
I dreaded giving Willy the revised letter. After cutting the bit about being a scapegoat, and after nixing the mention of his parents’ deaths and the references to God, there was hardly anything left of his original appeal. I began from scratch, and in doing so put words in Willy’s mouth he might not have believed, might not have fully considered, or might not want to consider: I contributed nothing. I disappointed my parents. I abandoned my children and family.
Reading my projections, Willy looked like he’d lost sensation in his face. He sat on the edge of his bed holding the letter with only his fingertips.
“I think he just wants to hear you say you fucked up,” I said.
Willy nodded. He read the letter again. “It’s good,” he said quietly. “This’ll work.”