--Cathechism of the Catholic Church, “Purgatory”
The injury occurred during a basketball game on the yard. I went up for a rebound and came down off balance on the side of my foot, driving my ankle to the ground until there was an audible pop. Down I went, holding my quivering leg and inventing new ways to say the same profanity.
When a guard later wheeled me into the prison ER I expected to be told my ankle was broken since it seemed to list to the left without any effort on my part. They might put a cast on it, but that’s all. Reasonable medical care isn’t something you expect in a place where they prefer a “natural” death over treatment, and a bare minimum of treatment is considered adequate in prison, but passes for negligence in the free world. It was Saturday and with no x-ray technicians available the doctor made some calls then told me I would be going to an outside hospital. He gave me a pain pill (crushed and mixed with water to avoid abuse), put my ankle in a temporary splint and left me to wait.
A couple of guards muttered incredulous comments about the cost of an ambulance while I stared at the splint, trying to keep my face neutral. Rattling in my head like a pair of carelessly tossed dice were two words—outside hospital—the one: outside. Through the haze of Oxycodone I focused on the waves of pain instead of what “outside” meant, but this failed as a long forgotten beacon lanced through it all. Outside. Outside. Outside.
I had not been beyond the wall in seventeen years, existing in the same two hundred yards of dust and cement my entire adult life. Prison is so ingrained in my thoughts it is simply an extension of head space – impossible to step out of except in death. Even dreams are tainted with fragments of this waking nightmare. It takes more time to brush and floss my teeth than walk to the chow hall, rec yard or canteen. I’ve become so accustomed to the lack of space and movement an empty 7’x9’ cell feels voluminous. Many of the people around me are so familiar, what they say or do can be counted upon like a drip from a leaky faucet. This microcosm of life is so removed from the outside that newspapers, magazines and TV provide figments of the imagination too distant to touch or smell or feel to be true. Even on the yard a craggy wall surrounds our dirt lot and cracked concrete basketball court, hiding freedom from hungry eyes and erasing memories of a different world that existed before . . . this. Now arrow slit windows blur a landscape in miniature – buildingstreesbirdsroadstrain—as untouchable as the earth from the moon.
It is difficult to picture something you’ve forgotten, then once you’ve been reintroduced, it’s impossible to understand how you forgot.
Not until we passed the checkpoint in front of the prison did it strike me we were beyond the wall. As the last recognizable barrier of my concrete world dwindled there was no doubt in my mind I remained incarcerated. Hands cuffed, chained at the waist, I sat on a motorized gurney with one leg shackled to the other over the temporary splint. To my left sat a transport officer with hands gripping the neck of her bullet-proof vest. Two more followed in a pursuit vehicle. I noted these things, along with all of the storage compartments in the back of the ambulance, as enthralled with them as the pavement unfolding behind us.
So many. So many trees and leaves, tall trunks towering over paved roads with cars glittering in the sun. So much space expanding and filling the square windows before me. Engines hummed, a car honked and I jumped, laughing at the sound. The officer looked at me and I stared ahead wide-eyed, then at her as the full significance of this trip became something I couldn’t keep to myself. “I haven’t been out of that prison in seventeen years.” She looked at me—in disbelief, incomprehension, curiosity—then resumed talking to the EMT.
Street signs punctuated roads into neighborhoods both welcoming and alien and so vivid my eyes watered. Colors vibrated. Even rundown houses with rusted oil tanks and peeling paint, overgrown weeds and shuttered windows, were perfect. My eyes jumped to cars I didn’t recognized and a few I remembered from TV ads. They were real! Futuristic and fantastic and me grinning like an idiot. Gloriously green leaves sprouted in lush clusters on branches shifting, swaying, waving and living out moments of creation as happily as they could.
We pulled into the hospital emergency entrance where I was taken to a bed, x-rayed, told nothing was broken and hustled into a tiny waiting room away from the ER. I had received some curious glances from hospital staff, but most of it was reserved for the three pistol-toting officers in their vests. They paced and got in the way and gave people serious looks to ward off conversation. As a result eyes seemed to skip over me so I sat there, bemused and unable to shift without grimacing in pain or the cuffs sliding up my skinny arms.
Finally, three nurses arrived with more temporary cast materials, to be exchanged for a walking boot once I met with an orthopedist. There wasn’t enough space in the room for six people so two officers stepped out while the nurses got to work. A friendly conversation between the female transport officer and a nurse began as they joked about what my foot would smell like in six weeks and what a pain-in-the-ass showering would be, with periodic instructions for me to breath when they moved my leg.
The banter died when the male nurse asked what my red jumpsuit meant and an officer standing by the door said, “Death row”.
Despite the chains and guards I had adapted to the otherness of the hospital and my thoughts were entirely in “the moment”. This is how I became conscious of the major difference between the “inside” and “outside”. Silence. The preternatural quiet was the emptying of thought into space rather than echoing from the walls of my confinement. “The moment” in prison is hatred, bitterness, regret and emotional pain. It never goes away and being at peace with it means you’ve grown accustomed to its oppressive weight on your back. People who like to say you can be free in mind but not in body while incarcerated have never experienced the substantial concentration of a life sentence. There is no real freedom—just the ability to do mental gymnastics to convince yourself everything will be okay when in your heart of hearts you know there is nothing natural or okay or freeing about confinement, and it is not necessarily a lesser evil than death. This weight is always present inside. Always nagging in the corner of the mind. Always reminding you of the utter wrongness of confinement.
Maybe it was the air and vibrant colors that hypnotized me into a false sense of wellbeing, but at the mention of death row the noise came roaring back and I sank into the hospital bed beneath its pressure.
The nurse holding my leg yelped as if pinched. At the same time the RN in charge blurted, “What?” and snapped her attention to the guard who volunteered the information. Nobody moved or said anything until the silence embarrassed even the transport officers, then she said “Wow, that’s incredibly sad.” The male nurse looked like he wanted to hide his face had his hands not been full.
A familiar sense of shame and isolation echoed through the years since the trial and I found myself wanting to leave the hospital, escape their scrutiny and return . . .then I stopped the thought as soon as it occurred. What did she mean? Was it “sad” because they were wasting resources on a condemned man, or “sad” because their profession is about preserving life and administering to those in need? Maybe she was commenting on her realization a normal human being in need of care sat before her, rather than the sensationalized deceptive image of a monster unfit for life or liberty? This last seemed the most plausible. My physical presence reminded her there are real people on death row—living, thinking, feeling people who will be put to death because the law says “die”.
In the disquiet that followed the RN in charge gave instructions on wrapping my ankle then left without another word. After patting my knee with a small smile, the other female nurse followed, leaving the molding of the cast to the male nurse. He was apologetic. “It will hurt. Push foot against my chest.” I moved, breathing hard because the pain was intense. “You know,” he said “No one ever put foot on me. Ever. You first.” He looked at me, his Russian accent making me think of him as some mobster trying to escape an ugly past. More than anything I appreciated his attempt to put me at ease.
I pushed hard, moving an inch and breaking into a cold sweat. “It’s a good habit,” I said, “not letting people put their foot on you. They might think you’re a doormat.”
He smiled as the material hardened around my ankle, tapped it with a knuckle then eased it to the bed. “All done.” He went down the hall to get a wheelchair.
Thirty minutes later, exhausted and ready to leave, they wheeled me out of the hospital and into the warm air and light of a parking lot. It was on a slight rise so I could see above the trees. In the wavering heat leaves fluttered and branches stirred. A car revved its engine. Ankle a distant ache, my eyes jumped from trees to cars and buildings and people then locked on the vermillion brilliance of the setting sun. The light hurt to look upon, but I stared and struggled to inhale this achingly beautiful life on earth, holding onto the awe it inspired. For the briefest moment I remembered another life, where sunsets were normal and I didn’t drink from this world as if dying of thirst. Then it was gone, lost in the gathering shadows and sound of clinking chains.