The night before I was to be a free man I fell asleep quickly.
I hadn’t expected this. I expected to stay awake up until the minute of my release at nine the next morning, to while away the intervening hours watching snowy gray shadows slide across the classroom’s walls, across the framed world map and posters on subject-verb agreement and photosynthesis. Instead, after watching the ten o’clock news and coverage of one of the worst blizzards to blow across the country in recent history—footage of ice-slicked roads, pile-ups, cars like balled-up aluminum foil—my roommates and I switched off the TV, rolled over in our army cots, and fell asleep as soundly as the white down that fell outside the classroom’s window.
We’d been living in the library, my four roommates and I, for three weeks as part of new quarantine procedures aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus from prisons to communities. Each of us was due to release within the month, two Mexicans to a halfway house in nearby Odessa, a white man to a halfway house in Seattle, and a Puerto Rican to a halfway house in Los Angeles.
The five of us shared what in pre-COVID days had been a GED classroom, the desks and chairs replaced with army cots. More inmates were spread throughout the building in other classrooms and in offices. We were kept locked in our rooms with the exception of bathroom and shower breaks. Some evening-shift officers who didn’t want to be bothered left the rooms unlocked with the understanding that we could use the bathrooms whenever we needed so long as we didn’t mingle and contaminate ones another.
Those nights our rooms were left open I’d wander the library in my shower shoes perusing the boxes, tapping typewriter keys, and peering out the windows of the empty compound. As the library was never intended to use inmates, many of the windows had no bars. We could have easily slipped out if we had it in our minds to escape. But why would we? We were going home.
Those evenings padding around the library unencumbered were strange. The compound, though just on the other side of the bookshelves, seemed so far away. There in the library we existed in a sort of limbo halfway between captivity and freedom. No one gave a care to politics. No one spoke of paperwork or criminal charges. There in the library the war had already ended. Our burdens were no longer ours but belonged to those outside the bar-less windows. One evening I happened to look out at suppertime and saw Sam and the cook walking to the chow hall. I caught their eyes, waved, and I imagined I must have already seemed then as much a stranger to them as they to me.
On the afternoon I left the compound to move into quarantine, Sam and the cook each hugged me with a ferocity that surprised me. Sam asked if I’d write to him.
“Of course I’ll write you,” I lied.
“Do you promise?”
I hesitated, still in his grip. “Yes, I promise I will write you.”
On the morning I was to be a free man I awoke at three and couldn’t fall back asleep. I go up to take a leak and on my way back from the bathroom I stopped in the vestibule and wiped the window there with the cuff of my sweatshirt. The porch, the wheelchair ramp, the road beyond were all buried beneath shimmery hillocks of snow, and still more snow fell, fat flakes whipping, colliding, and scattering like electrons beneath the porch light.
In different circumstances I might have found the scene enchanting. Instead it unnerved me. I wondered whether my father made it to town safely. His plan had been to drive to Big Spring the day before, stay the night in a hotel and pick me up in the morning. In fair weather, when there isn’t a blizzard scraping across the state, the drive from Dallas would have taken him five hours. I kept seeing that 100-car pile-up in Fort Worth on the ten o’clock news, trailers jackknifed, cars crumpled and strewn along the highway like empty beer cans. I had no means of knowing if my father had made it to the hotel safely. The library had no phones.
As much as I fretted I had a hunch Dad was okay. Chalk it up to the childish belief that our parents are indomitable forces, forever orbiting us and swooping in to bandage and kiss scraped knees. But he had been there, my father, these past ten years, doggedly making the drive to visit each month. It was inconceivable that he wouldn’t make that drive this one last time.
Back in our classroom I laid in my cot and listened to my roommates snore. On of the Mexicans had left on a bus for Odessa days earlier after a nurse came through and swabbed our noses. Now there were four of us. We measured time in the meals that came delivered to our door in take-out trays three times per day. When we weren’t eating or sleeping we watched the TV we’d found and hung from a shoestring above the whiteboard. Due to the storm reception was intermittent, but even then I watched more television in those three weeks of quarantine than I had in the past ten years of my bid. Had programming always been so vapid? So unsubtle? Every comedy, drama, game show, talk show, even the commercials, was over-the-top, in-your-face. America’s taste in entertainment favored the saccharine, artificial, and junky, the dietary equivalent of Lucky Charms and Fruity Pebbles.
I was especially bowled over by the rise of the true-crime genre, which I’d read is most popular with women. I wager incarcerated men might be the genre’s second largest fan base. My roommates devoured every episode of every series, remarking on where the crooks went wrong and what they would have done differently to evade the police.”What I would have done is threw the dope out the window.” “Don’t he know you’re supposed to weigh the body down before you dump it in the lake?”
The interrogations were our favorite part. We’d experienced the tactics firsthand, the falsely sympathetic investigator who puts his hand on your shoulder and tells you you’ll be doing yourself a favor, son, if you just come clean. “That dumb nigga’s going to fall for it!” my roommates howled at the TV.
By seven a.m. I’d given up trying to fall back asleep. According to my itinerary, I was to be escorted to R&D for processing in an hour then discharged at nine. Quietly I stripped my cot in the dark and stuffed my linens into a laundry along with my institution browns and khakis and everything else I’d be leaving behind. I’d be wearing most of my wardrobe out the door.
By quarter past eight my nerves were shot and my stomach felt as though I were riding an elevator. I sat watching Night Court with the sound turned down. I’d never seen the show before and couldn’t understand the point. Do courts hold session at night? Why is Dan such a pig? Why does Christine put up with his shit? The sexist humor, outmoded in 2021, came across as hateful.
I flipped to a western, and a terrible thought occurred to me: What if freedom isn’t everything I hope it will be? I’d been building it up in my mind for so long imagining it to be the answer to all my problems. But what if it isn’t? What if freedom is disappointing?
At quarter till nine I grabbed my toilet paper and went to the bathroom for the second time that morning. On the way back to the classroom I asked the CO if he knew the reason for the delay. He called R&D. They said they didn’t know of anyone releasing that morning.
I waded back to the classroom as though through water.
There it is, I thought. I’d known it all along, hadn’t I? I’d known it the day I surrendered when I walked into that gray cell with a bedroll tucked beneath my arm that I would never get out of prison. They had played in allowing me to get so far, farther than I could have thought possible, only to jerk back on the chain minutes from the appointed time. How foolish to think they’d let me leave, the I could ever be a whole person again . . .
Then at five till nine there came a knock on the classroom door. The CO looked at me through the window.
“You got your stuff packed?”
“Yes, sir,” I said and reached for the remote.
He unlocked the classroom door. “Come on, then. Your dad’s here.”
Outside the sky was pearl grey. In my arms I carried a box of cookbooks and over my shoulder was slung a gym bag of toiletries, socks, and underwear. I took the library steps one at a time being careful not to slip. Before locking himself back in the library, the CO wished me luck. “Don’t come back,” he said.
I was as shakey as a newborn calf trekking across the compound in the snow. The cold made my breathing ragged and shallow. Or maybe it was the face mask covering my mouth and nose that made breathing difficult, or the months of idle quarantines that made my lungs weak. Maybe it was relief. Maybe it was panic.
It’s here, I thought. He drove for hundreds of miles in a snow storm to collect his son. It’s really happening.
I sat on the concrete bench in front of the lieutenants office to wait for an escort to take me up to R&D. I wore only sweatshirt and sweatpants, nearly all the clothes I owned, but the cold didn’t bother me. I could have sat on that bench another hour or for the rest of the day if it meant I’d see my father and leave that place.
Across the yard bundled in their khaki jackets I saw men returning from Laundry with bags slung over their shoulders. Among them was Derrick. I stood when he approached and we hugged tightly without saying a word. I didn’t speak for fear that opening my mouth might release what was building in my chest. But it didn’t matter because it came out anyway, expelled through my clenched teeth, for lack of space. I sobbed hard into Derrick’s shoulder.
I didn’t cry because I would miss him, though I surely would. I cried because I’d survived.
“I’ll see you later,” I said finally. We both smiled because we knew it wasn’t true.
At R&D it fell to Officer Krannich to process me. In the Officers’ Mess when ordering lunch Krannich had a habit of saying he’d like “a little of this” and “a little of that.” He was wall-eyed and I could never tell whether he was looking at the Salisbury steak or the shepherd’s pie, and if I asked for clarification he’d get huffy and talk to me as though I were deaf or dumb.
Foolishly I believed that officers might treat an inmate differently when they see that your about to be released. But Krannich was his usual surly self, either unaware or unmoved by the seismic change which was about to take place in the man’s life before him. He began his griping as soon as I set my box and bag on the folding table in front of the full-body x-ray machine. “Well don’t just stand there,” he said. “Empty out your stuff. How am I supposed to take an inventory if I can’t see what you’ve got?”
I thought to say, I don’t know how this works. I’ve never been released from prison before.
After filling out the necessary forms, Krannich told me to wait in one of the empty cages at the end of the room. While Krannich made a phone call I watched another CO take snapshots of a new surrender, an Hispanic man in his forties. Nearby a printer spit out a shiny new inmate ID card. Once he’d finished dressing out and having his prints taken, the prisoner was asked to take a seat. He sat on the bench across from me. Neither of us spoke.
When one man leaves another comes to take his place.
Krannich, when he finished with his phone calll, asked me to step inside the other holding cell. His earlier surliness had vanished, and when he spoke next his voice was subdued and his straight eye nor his crooked eye would look at me.
“We can’t release you today,” he said.
I felt my chest, head, and limbs grow heavy, as though my body suddenly held too much blood.
“One of your roommates in the library tested positive for COVID. Now policy says you have to quarantine for another two weeks because you’ve been exposed.”
I realized Krannich had pulled me into the empty cell, away from the new surrender, because he thought I might get confrontational. But I did no such thing. I made no scene, raised no objection. I was too tired to fight. Doing so wouldn’t have helped and could only have made things worse.
The funny thing is that I wasn’t even surprised. A month earlier a man’s release had to be postponed because staff forgot to place him in quarantine. Before that another man’s release was pushed back because staff forgot to buy his bus ticket. My roommates and I were tested a week prior to my release which meant staff would have known well before that morning that I wouldn’t be leaving but had failed to notify me or my father. It was just one more careless flub in a series of careless flubs. It’s ironic, in an institution tasked with holding people accountable for their actions, that nobody within the system themselves is held accountable for their mistakes.
But I wasn’t upset so much for myself as I was for my father, who’d served the past ten years alongside me, and who’d driven all those miles through sleet and snow only to be turned away.
“What about my dad?” I asked.
Krannich said his supervisor would speak to him. Then he told me to grab my stuff, he’d escort me back to the compound.