In my cell, I lay on my back, reading. I looked at my watch. I was getting out in two hours. I was forty-five and I had been in prison for the last fifteen years of my life. I was sentenced for a longer fall, but I had made parole and I was getting out early. I had already packed my stuff. Everything fit into the bag they gave me with room to spare. The only two things I hadn’t packed were two books: my Bible and a Stephen King novel. I felt like I should’ve been excited but I wasn’t. I wasn’t anything. I lay there, reading the novel until I heard my name called.
“Collins,” said the hack. “It’s time.”
I had known McGregor for a long time. He was alright for a hack, but the relationship between guards and inmates had been nonexistent at best since June of 2015. The aftershock of the escape was still being felt in 2019.
I picked up my bag and followed the hack along the catwalk. I made eye contact and exchanged a few nods with a few inmates but other than that there were no words exchanged. I had learned to communicate, for the most part, nonverbally during my time in prison. For me, words were mostly for reading, writing, thinking, praying. In prison I learned to talk to God. To other people, less was more.
We walked through a few sally ports and along a few corridors until I came face to face with a woman behind a counter. She gave me a large package that my cousin Laurence had sent for my discharge. The hack led me to a room where I could change into the clothes that were in the bag.
“You can change in here,” said the hack, gesturing.
I nodded in acknowledgment.
McGregor left me alone to change. I put off the prison garments and put on the jeans and hoody that were in the bag. I was especially thankful for the boots and the jacket because it’s cold in Dannemora. Also in the bag was an envelope. In the envelope was a bus ticket from the Clinton Greyhound terminal to Grand Central, my New York State ID, a MetroCard, three hundred dollars, a cellphone, a transit map, and a note.
“Congratulations, Bruce,” Laurence had written on the note. “Look forward to seeing you. When you get to Grand Central, find the 6 train and head uptown and the Bronx. Ride the 6 all the way into the Bronx. Get off at Westchester Square. I have it mapped out for you. Use the MetroCard. Give me a call asap. My number is programmed into the phone. It’s pre-paid.”
I smiled at the idea of going uptown. Coming from uptown is what we called leaving prison. I put everything back in the envelope and knocked on the door.
“It’s open,” said the hack.
I opened the door.
“Yes,” I said.
McGregor walked me through a few more sally ports, corridors, catwalks, walkways. Then we arrived at the final gate. He stopped. I stopped. He radio’d and the gate opened. He held out his hand, gesturing me to go on.
“You’re a free man,” said McGregor.
I nodded kindly. He held out his hand for a shake. I don’t know exactly why but I didn’t want to shake his hand. I hesitated. But he kept his hand outstretched for the extra beat and held eye contact, so I took his hand and shook. I stepped across the threshold. The hack radio’d again and the gate closed behind me. I turned and looked at the walls surrounding my place of captivity for the last fifteen years. A bird that was perched atop the wall flew over my head and landed on the hood of a car across the street and eyed me. I breathed in the cold air and walked across the street. I used the flip phone and called Laurence.
“Bruce?” he answered.
“Congratulations, Bruce. How does it feel?”
“So you got the package, that’s good. You’re all set.”
I took in a deep breath and exhaled.
“Get a cab to the Clinton Greyhound. You’re on schedule. Use that money. Get you something to eat. It’s an easy trip, really. You get to Grand Central and find the 6. There’ll be signs. You find the 6 uptown and the Bronx. Use the MetroCard at the turnstiles. You swipe it through where you used to use coins. No more tokens, my man. The MetroCard is how you pay. The money is already on the card.”
“Thank you. I appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
“Just get yourself here, alright?”
“Alright,” I said and disconnected the call.
I called a cab and rode to the bus terminal. Along the ride I looked out the window from a hidden spot somewhere behind my eyes. I had learned to hide, even out in the open. Especially out in the open. The light lay on everything like a comforter. The houses showed the signs of time’s embrace: discoloration, worn paint jobs, rubbish here and there. I had heard about the MetroCard’s inside the joint. I watched TV, read books, listened. I had access to information on what was happening on the outside.
The driver pulled to a stop in front of the bus terminal.
“Okay,” he said.
I handed him a twenty and he gave me the change. Inside the terminal I checked in with the lady at the service desk to make sure I was good to go. I showed her my ticket and ID. Everything was squared away. I got a sandwich, fries, and a soda from Wendy’s. The food was good but it went right through me. I had forgotten how nice regular toilets were. I had gotten used to the metal toilets inside the joint. Those things weren’t made with comfort in mind.
I had an hour until departure. I found a place to sit and observed my surroundings, not making any eye contact, but getting a good look at the cast of characters around me. There weren’t many. Thirty people, more or less. Some together, some loners. Almost everybody was on a smart-phone. I knew about’em. iPhones and iPads. People did stuff on the internet now. They shopped on the web, spent their time on social media websites, sent emails, all that. I had read about all that stuff. I pulled the King novel from my bag and found the place where I had left off.
One of the things I had learned about in prison was the freedom in reading. When McGregor had told me that I was now a free man, I had wanted to tell him that I had been freed eight years ago. He didn’t know that I had been with Edmond Dantès in the dungeons of the Chateau D’If, that I had learned the lessons of the Abbé Faria, that if the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
But I had also learned that it wasn’t my business to tell other people how or what to think. That’s why I had nodded to the hack and moved along. He could think whatever he wanted to think. My new life didn’t start today, just because I was released from prison; it started eight years ago when I hit rock bottom. It was the moment when I finally admitted to myself and to God that I was responsible for my actions. And I wasn’t only thinking about the stretch of armed robberies I took the fall for. I was thinking about everything: my failure as a man, failure to provide for my family, failure to listen to the right people, my substance abuse, always blaming someone or something other than me. But that night, alone in my cell, I realized there was nobody else to blame. I needed forgiveness. I wanted forgiveness. Not from any man, but from God. I looked to God for that forgiveness and that forgiveness came to me in the knowledge of Christ. It was like what happened to Louis Zamperini at the Billy Graham tent meeting, only I was alone in my cell. When I said, “I’m sorry,” to God, and “Help me,” I meant it. He did. I felt peace about everything. A certain comfort.
That was my first day out of prison.
I wasn’t worried anymore. I knew that God now accepted me, and therefore my ambition was complete. I still felt sorry that my wife divorced me while I was in prison, that my son wouldn’t speak to me. But when I got right with God, I somehow knew that God would take care of it, in either this life or the next. That somehow, by faith, it was already taken care of.
Freed from prison, yet still in prison. But as it happened, it turned out to be the beginning of a new life. A life where wisdom was the principal thing. After that, it didn’t matter whether my cell door was opened or closed, because the cell door had been swung wide opened in my mind, my heart.
Yet I didn’t become a Christian in the same way some of the other Christians were. I didn’t play the denominational game, the church game. I went to all the chapel services available and just listened and soaked up what people had to say. I had the Bible and I could read for myself. And not only the Bible. I started reading all kinds of books: histories, biographies, novels. I would read every chance I could get. I worked in laundry services so it wasn’t like I could lie around in my cell all day. I woke up early, 4:30 in the morning, and I would pray and read. Then I would write. In my writing I would reflect on the things that I had read. Doing this between the regular prison routine duties filled up my days and made them fly by. The things I learned about people were a wonder to me. I remember being astounded when I read what David Halberstam wrote about the Fords: “To William Ford, on his own land at last, free of the old country, the farm was liberating; to Henry Ford, bored and restless, it was like a prison.” What was freedom to Henry Ford’s old man was like prison to him. Freedom, I began to learn, was a matter of perspective, ambition, what a man is willing to do. In some ways it’s a matter of relationship between a man and his ambition.
Where had all this ambition come from? I was so ambitious to prove myself as the bully that I robbed store clerks at gunpoint for cash. I foolishly believed that there were only two kinds of people in the world: Bullies and victims. I wasn’t going to be the victim, so I bullied. I had never realized how exhausting it was to be a full-time bully. Every day I had to prove myself all over again. There was no end in sight. It was a lifestyle that made it impossible for me to hold any kind of job, be able to work with anybody, and eventually landed me in the slammer. When I came to Christ, the bully burden was finally removed and for the first time ever it felt like I could breathe.
I boarded the bus at three p.m. and settled in for the seven-hour ride to Grand Central. I had worries, sure. My ex-wife, my son, what I was going to do for money, how I was going to repay Laurence: but I cast all those cares on Christ. When the bus started I was already back in the novel, traveling along those lines, free. Just as I’d been for the last eight years.
D. F. Wharton.