I spent yesterday morning in a dingy beige government facility, waiting with a friend, E, for his parole hearing. He has been in a halfway house for a year; we won’t know for a day or two if he will be released. If not, he expects it will be many months before he gets another hearing.
E’s isn’t my story to tell, but some parts of our friendship are. We met through one of DH’s laborers, himself a halfway house resident. By the time we met E, the crew had solidified, becoming as much family as employees. They joined us for supper many nights, grateful to avoid eating institutional slop. We traded stories. Our “white picket fence” existence was a source of amused bafflement to them – mom, dad, two kids, dog, sit-down supper every night. Even our food was different. Friend M was shocked when I told him the vegetable he had just enjoyed was broccoli. “I didn’t know broccoli could taste good!” We were as foreign to their experience as someone from an exotic country. Their histories were peppered with abuse and drug use and family cobbled together from whoever stuck around.
E joined us for supper a few times. He was quiet in the midst of our laughter, and gentle. My children adored him. He was struggling a bit, we were told. No safe place to stay. Any place affordable enough for a con was full of drugs and hookers. Temptation. We helped a little, buying his tools when he needed cash, letting him crash on our floor for a few days, but he slipped, and was sent back to prison.
We corresponded. E wrote every couple of weeks, signing off each time with gratitude for our continuing friendship. My letters were intermittent, full of cards and drawings by the children. Some were rejected by censors. No stamps, I learned. No colored paper. Rectangular letters only. Books or magazines had to be new and sent directly from approved booksellers. The prison system is a joyless place and privatization has monetized any attempts at kindness.
After six years E earned release to the halfway house. He credits me, our family, with some of his success. I am embarrassed. I have offered nothing exceptional. We are friends. He joins us for supper. His gratitude for the simplest of gestures – food, help understanding health insurance documents, a ten-minute ride so he doesn’t have to spend an hour and a half on the bus – humbles me with awareness of my riches. I have grown up in an abundance of comfort and love. I have money, and education, and opportunity. My life is full of blessings – one of which is his friendship. We talk, sometimes, about his childhood, or prison, or the other men in the halfway house. He is wise, and shares insights about poverty and class. He takes the shine off my privileged perspective, laughing and laughing when I am sympathetic. I’m told it boils down to stupidity and bad choices. That there are no excuses – not abuse or bad upbringing or rotten circumstances. I excuse his bad decisions anyway. He’s in a different place now, I remind him. A better one.
Which is why we spent more than three hours waiting in that nondescript building, subject to a bureaucracy careless with our time. I was there to support his plea to the state that they grant him parole. Not freedom. My glancing acquaintance with the criminal justice system has shown me that people who have run through that grinder are never free. Even after the ankle bracelets are removed and the weekly parole meetings are ended and regularly peeing in a cup is no longer a condition of their release, “criminals” carry the weight of public perception. Housing, employment, even relationships are tainted with distrust and disgust.
That was clear in E’s interview with a parole board member. He spoke to E the way I speak to my children. “What were you thinking?” Subtext: be ashamed, be sorrowful, repent. “How can I trust that you will never do it again?” Subtext: you cannot make good choices, you are not trustworthy, the public is not safe. We sat, hands on our laps, as E was subtly chastised. In time I was allowed to speak my support, promising that E has good (read: stable middle class white) friends on his side. We are hoping my good fortune can be leveraged on his behalf. E is grateful. I am, too. It’s nice to have done something actually worth his gratitude.