My brother told me over the phone that it felt like walking under water. He had a vague sense of drifting across the parking lot, though he could have sworn he was standing perfectly stationary, his head and thoughts in a kind of stunned status. Releasing along side of him that same day was another man who’d just completed a thirteen-year bid. He was shaking and breathing hard, and Mark wondered briefly whether he ought to offer the man his arm for support for fear he might fall. But then Mark saw his girlfriend across the prison’s parking lot and forgot about the man. He walked out toward the woman, making agonizing slow progress for all the thrashing of his limbs.The sun, which it seemed he hadn’t seen at all in the past three years, blinded his eyes and numbed all sensation of his body. He was aware only of the tireless churning of his legs beneath him. And then she was there beside him and his senses diminished entirely save for his sense of touch. For a time there existed only the press of bodies and mouths. Then one by one his senses returned, and he smelled the soap on her skin, saw up close the glowing filaments of her hair, heard the waves crashing over him and recognized them as his own racking sobs.
Or so this is how I imagined it to be, returning to the free world.
My brother was sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a sixteen-year-old girl. He was granted parole after three and was released this past April. His biological mother put him up up in a small lake house at the edge of her property out in the country, far from any schools or parks. There he will spend three months on house arrest while he looks for work and a permanent place to live.
When he isn’t scouring job listings and pinpointing daycares on Google Maps, he makes improvements to the lake house, repainting, clearing away scrub brush, replacing the rotting railing that lines the small pier. He told me he was making some particularly finicky repair one day—to what he couldn’t remember exactly—when amidst his frustrations he realized suddenly, for seemingly no reason, that he was crying. He said there was a lot of that in those first few weeks of freedom, strange and inexplicable breakdowns.
In the Officers’ Mess this week we served the usual fair of grilled chicken and burgers. Neither sounded appealing to Ms Bayard, my Case Manager. She asked the cook for an egg sandwich with extra mayo instead. (“It is real mayo, isn’t it?”) The cook despises special requests. They spread like yawns; one officer will ask for an egg sandwich or grilled cheese or patty melt and, inevitably, all other officers in line will by the power of suggestion catch a hankering for the same. Sure enough two CO’s behind Bayard asked for egg sandwiches. The cook tore open a bag of whole wheat and threw a knob of butter on the griddle where it sputtered and flamed. While the eggs fried, Ms Bayard leaned over the steam table and told me my release been denied. She’d sent off the paperwork last month for my coming release.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She explained that the probation officer had rejected my release address—my parents’ house— because it was too close to a park.
I’d assumed beforehand the park might pose a problem. A friend kindly offered to put me up in a spare bedroom in the house he shares with his mother but we decided against it after one of his neighbors, an elderly woman living alone in a sprawling two story, leased a room to an ex-felon causing a minor uproar in the neighborhood.
Bayard asked if I had any other place I could go. I told her I did not.
“We’ll have to put you down as homeless, then.” She said.
Practically speaking it makes no difference whether I have a residential address to my name since I’ll be releasing to the halfway house. It would have been convenient and even pleasurable after leaving the halfway house to have been able to stay with my parents for a while, to save money and acclimate to civilian life, but knowing their proximity to a park would be problematic. I’d been fully prepared to fly solo, to move immediately into a place of my own, struggle for a bit. It should have meant nothing to me having no residence. And yet that word “homeless” rang strange to me. Homeless is for people without family or friends or a sport system. But I have all those things, fortunately. I might not have a home address, but surely I’m not homeless.
Later the cook, disgusted, said, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t be allowed to live with your parents.” We were in the dorm eating bologna sandwiches for dinner at our bunks (COVID-19 still has the chow hall closed). Across the aisle from us sat a man passed out in a chair, his chin resting on his chest Another inmate beside him sat sucking K2 smoke through an empty pen barrel. The cook nodded to them. “Those motherfuckers there will get out, face hardly any oversight save for a piss test, which they’ll fail. Within months they’ll either violate or catch their third or fourth charge, probably kill somebody with that shit they hawk. And you they won’t live near a park.”
I was surprised by the cook’s vehemence, and also touched.
“I guess I just know you,” he said.
Back at the lake house Mark calls various apartment complexes around Dallas to inquire about vacancies. Online he is surprised to see, according to the state registry, so many sex offenders living within the city’s gay district. But when he reveals his charge to the apartment managers, invariably he is told they cannot accommodate him. Mark continues his search and finds a house for lease outside the city which Google Maps shows is far enough away from any school or park. But when he presents it to the parole office, the house is rejected. While the house is indeed 500 feet from the nearest school, a school crossing lies just within the legal radius.
There are, Mark says, so many rules—city, state, federal, probational—that sex offenders must adhere to. It’s all very nebulous, confusing, and open to interpretation. Upon registering for the first time a local police officer told Mark he must ask permission before traveling outside the county, though on paper the rule states he must give notice when traveling outside the county more than three times for more than forty-eight hours. Another rule prohibits Mark from driving past a school or through a school zone without a “defined purpose.” His parole officer clarified that driving to a grocery store to buy groceries is one such defined purpose.
“So if I drive through a school zone on my way to a restaurant, I’m good?”
“No, no,” said his PO. “Eating out is recreational. In that case you’ll have to find a different route.”
On first glance, yet another policy prohibiting sex offenders from accompanying anyone under the age of eighteen seems to contradict another allowing contact with minors if supervised by another adult. Closer reading revels that the former rule applies to online interactions and the latter to physical encounters. But Mark’s PO doesn’t recognize the distinction and demands that Mark have no contact with any minor, supervised or not. Naturally this leads one to wonder what rights sex offenders have in raising their own children. Mark, who recently divorced, has three kids all under the age of eighteen. A month after his release from prison he has yet to visit them. To see his kids he must first solicit the courts, fill out the necessary forms, submit copies of each child’s birth certificate, present supportive letters from therapists. Only then will he be granted supervised visits with his children. In the meantime, Mark has been allowed to speak to his sons and daughter by phone, but only is ex-wife wrote a letter to his parole officer granting him permission to do so.
In some ways I’m more fortunate than my brother. My life hasn’t the thorny ties of chidden, ex-wives, and girlfriends. I’m untethered. Still relatively young, and I have almost nothing to my name and therefore nothing to lose. I have the freedom, so to speak, to start life afresh. And yet even at my most optimistic I’m plagued in this final stretch of my sentence by so many fears and unknowns.
Someone asked me what I looked forward to most as a free man, and I could think of not one measurable thing for all the worries that cloud my mind. At the forefront I worry about finding meaning able work and a place to live. Will I be able to resume a career in computers, or will I be stymied by restrictions that make it impossible to return to my passion? Will probation really last a lifetime, as my judge decreed? A lifetime of draconian rules, oppressive scrutiny, the hovering fear of being sent back to prison for any undotted i or uncrossed t.
I’ve been told that leaving prison is more frightening than coming into prison. I wouldn’t have believed that nine years ago. Now, once in a while when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I shutter myself in a bathroom stall to cull through the worries that bombard my mind, each having hardly been formed before being replaced by another and another: halfway house, homelessness counseling, car insurance, health insurance, eye exams, polygraphs, grocery bills, coronavirus, dating, sex, rent, taxes, family, porn . . .
One evening a shadow fell over my feet and the stall door swung open. None of the doors have latches. Most don’t even close without wedging wads of toilet paper in the gaps The intruder muttered an apology before closing door. I watched his shadow move down the line of stalls. Soon, I thought, there won’t be anyone around to barge in on me when I’m in the bathroom. I won’t have to hear or smell the man beside me. I might have thought to mention this when asked what I look forward to most as a free man. I’d have said, “I look forward to taking a shit in peace.”