The Prison Yard
I smelled the musty scent of fear mixed with body odor, bad breath and something so nasty I couldn’t identify it as I stepped out onto the prison yard. Surrounded by some of the meanest men on earth, I wished more than anything to be invisible, unnoticed.
“Hey handsome! Where you going?” A man almost as terrifying as my first Hell’s Angel cellmate spoke to me, putting out a hand to stop me.
I played dumb and kept walking.
That many criminals shoved together in a small space felt like stepping into a nuclear reactor. Anything could spark an explosion. My first day on the yard, I made a heart cry to God. I knew it would take a miracle to get me out of this alive and unscathed. With sudden clarity, I realized that while I knew about God, I had no relationship with Jesus.
I could meet my maker any moment of any day and I needed to prepare myself for that encounter. The problem was that it took constant awareness and watching to stay alive. Any moment that my mind wandered might be my last.
I existed in full-blown survival mode.
My third day on the yard, two Mexican gangs got in a fight right in front of me. I kept my eyes straight ahead and kept walking while they stabbed one another, turning it into a bloodbath. I made it to the other side of the yard in full-blown panic, splattered with blood.
It felt as though I’d grown up and been thrown back in Ontario among gangs on steroids. Only this time there was no escape. Trembling in my cell that night, I wondered if any of the boys who’d beat me bloody as a kid were here filing down shanks and stabbing people. A shudder shook my body. I wouldn’t doubt it for a moment.
Murder in prison wasn’t like murder on the outside. If you killed someone inside, you didn’t go back to court for a trial. You went before a committee. The maximum an inmate got for murder inside was an extra three years attached to their sentence.
“You pledging allegiance to us?” a white guy asked me the next morning on the yard.
“Why? You’re going to need us!”
I remembered the advice from the lifer in the county jail and walked away.
On the outside, money was the currency that people would kill to get. On the inside, a candy bar was enough. Candy bars, I learned, were a big deal. A powerful currency. If an inmate borrowed a candy bar and didn’t pay it back by midnight, one thing was certain.
They were coming for him.
The next time I met with my counselor, he looked at me with sad eyes and shook his head. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “There are no white-collar criminals in this prison. None. Except you. So I wrote to your judge and asked for a lesser sentence.”
“What’d he say?” I asked with a glimmer of hope.
“A resounding no! So I asked that you be transferred to a different level prison.”
“Again, a resounding no! I don’t know who hates you, but he has a lot of clout and political power.”
I knew who was wielding his power against me. Oscar Wyatt. It wasn’t enough that he sent me to prison, he wanted me to suffer. He wanted me scared out of my wits. He’d gotten his wish. I suspected he wanted me to die a horrible death.
“You’re stuck here,” my counselor continued. “You’re going to have to be very particular about who you associate with. Don’t leave your cell without your case file. Having the paper with you might save your life.”
Two different counselors wrote the judge but it did no good. There was a guy who’d killed and cut up some kids. He only served six years. I served five years and seven months for bad checks.
Back on the yard, I tried to make myself invisible but it didn’t work. They surrounded me like a pack of hungry wolves.
“We need to know your crime,” the leader said.
I knew he wouldn’t believe me so I just handed him my papers. The wolves gathered around and read it over his shoulder.
“He wrote bad checks!” the leader said with a smirk on his face. “Leave him alone.”
I lost count of how many times those papers saved my life.
One of the inmates had several guitars and played the blues. I loved listening to him play. He saw my interest and offered to teach me. I spent all my free time practicing, playing and writing music. When he was discharged, he gave me one of his guitars. My Bible and that guitar were what helped me keep my sanity.
Winter in Northern California hit with a blinding snowstorm. It snowed for four months. On the outside, snow seemed pure, as though it washed away all the filth and grime. Here it made reality more frightening. Blood splattered on pristine snow like a bright red blossom made my stomach clench in nausea.
I heard my name announced over the speaker system one morning calling me to the office. A rock settled in my stomach as I made my way there. “You’re going to work for the Warden and me,” the lieutenant said. The first job they gave me was being in charge of bed assignments.
That was a big deal.
There were two men assigned to a cell and I decided who would bunk where.
I was also assigned to take care of the garden and the livestock. I loved it because those jobs took me off the yard, which made me feel safe. Still, I got called back to the yard numerous times a day to make new bed assignments.
I stayed busy from the moment my eyes opened in the morning until I crawled into my bed at night. Only working in the garden or with the livestock did I let my mind wander to Luann and the kids. They were my reason to live; the reason I wouldn’t let myself fall into despair and give up. My goals were simple. Stay alive. Serve my time and get out in one piece. Fix my marriage and put my family back together.
Months passed, the earth thawed and I watched tender green shoots spring up from the soil. I’d been in the penitentiary for a year before I got to use the telephone. I called Luann.
“Let me make this clear,” she said. “We’re not getting back together. I’m going to divorce you. When you get out, you’re not going to see me or the kids.”
I felt like a rodeo clown. One who’d just been kicked in the chest by a bull. I staggered out to the garden and began pulling weeds like a madman. I knew it was too dangerous for me in the yard. My emotions were so volatile that if I wasn’t careful, I would spark a war.
I sat on my knees in the rich, dark soil panting like I’d run a marathon. I’d wrecked the plants. I used my sleeve to wipe sweat from my face. It wasn’t possible that some of the moisture on my face wasn’t perspiration because men in the pen didn’t cry.
Not if they wanted to live.
Any sign of weakness drew predators.
I picked up the plants I’d ripped up in a rage and replanted them in a neat row. While I worked, my mind raced with the implications of Luann’s words.
Luann had known what I was doing floating checks. I realized now that breaking the law wasn’t a problem in her rule book. Getting caught at it was unforgiveable.
The fact that she was divorcing me was painful. Telling me that I couldn’t see the kids was devastating. If it had been anyone else, I might have hoped that she would relent and let me see them.
I knew without a doubt that she wouldn’t change her mind.
Everything we’d been through – leaving our homes, furnishings, my job, our identities, running from the police and being stalked and shot at by the mob – had all been about her stubborn refusal to compromise on visitation. We’d known every step of the way that what we were doing was illegal. We’d justified our actions based on what a sorry excuse for a human being D’Angleo was and how he’d used his money and the law against us.
But I wasn’t D’Angelo. I’d put my whole life on the line over and over to help her keep her girls. I’d never imagined that she would do worse to me. She didn’t just want custody. She was refusing to let me see my kids. She didn’t want me in their lives.
My only recourse was to hire the best attorney money could buy and go to court. I knew without a shadow of a doubt what would happen. We would spend years – and millions of dollars – in family court with nothing getting resolved. I would be back in the same mess that had driven me to make money at any cost. There would never be enough. I’d ridden that train right to the penitentiary.
If I got out of prison and chased money like a god again so I could spend it on attorneys, I knew what would happen. The last vestige of humanity would be stripped from my soul. The way I saw it, the decisions I made here in prison would determine what I did for the rest of my life. If I let myself be pulled back on that cash-cow merry-go-round again, I might as well give up and die here.
I sat back on my heels and lifted my tortured face toward the morning sun. I hadn’t just lost my freedom. I hadn’t just lost my marriage. I hadn’t just lost my family.
I’d lost my kids.
I pictured their faces and wanted to howl like a wounded animal.