This story is by Kim Evans and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Wanna know how to survive prison? Jack knew. He had done this before. The first time he swore he wouldn’t be back. But he was. The first time was many years ago. He was guilty of being young, cocky and sick of feeling poor. Being smart he had managed to stay ahead of the law but he tired of being on the run. Now he found himself on his way back to prison and this time he was innocent. The jury made their decision influenced by their own biases of his previous conviction and ignored the lack of evidence.
The van was starting to slow. Jack’s wrists were heavy with the steel handcuffs that bound them. First rule: Trust no one – especially the guards. There was a reason why people came to prison and a reason people worked in one. Second rule: Bring with you what you will need. Third rule: Be alert.
Justice was not done. Belief that one is innocent until proven guilty failed. The minds of those on the jury were made up before they sat in judgement. Jack’s legal defense was in disbelief but they also admitted to an uphill battle despite Jack’s innocence. They had put up a good fight, demonstrating how the path was riddled with gaps. People were lazy; they saw an easy path and they followed it.
Jack’s past made it too easy for the crime to be blamed on him. His previous conviction caused his credibility to be questioned forever. He realized as he matured that the consequences of his mistakes would influence every aspect of his life. He had changed from his first incarceration; the experience had made his life better in the most important way, he met God. Now, he questioned what God needed him to do. Jack could only pray to fulfill God’s reason for bringing him back, knowing that Jack was innocent of this theft put upon him.
Next to him a much younger man fought back tears. He was in his mid-20s and scared. This man was a victim of circumstance. He was a farmer and through some ill twist of fate had been involved in a farm accident; the result had ended up in a death. In his case the loss of life had compelled the community leaders to put someone behind bars to allow the community to heal. This man was unfortunately their sacrificial lamb.
Jack knew his name was Isiah. He had provided him the three rules of survival and prayed with him to bring him comfort. Isiah had received a longer sentence but as Jack explained to him, there was a good likelihood that he would be behind bars for less. The penal system offered programs to work toward earlier release. Isiah would have the family farm to go back to; most men had nothing. They entered back into the world shunned by friends and family and would have difficulty in finding any decent meaningful work. It was no wonder why many landed back in prison.
The van doors opened. The air was still and smelled faintly of exhaust as the van idled to allow its passengers release. Jack descended the step leading to the concrete path. The air felt cool against Jack’s salt and peppered short hair. Isiah descended the van and stood behind him. Isiah was silent; steeled now to withstand the cold hard future about to embrace him.
They walked through the gray doors and the natural light was gone. Inside, the bright fluorescent bulbs against the gray walls created a life draining hue. Processing went quickly. Every step broke the individual down from being a free thinking human being into an impartial piece of this world; a cog without any identity or purpose, imprisoned. After the boxes were checked and the human automatons confirmed their arrival, Jack and Isiah were placed in a temporary holding area to sit and wait.
“What now?” Isiah quietly asked.
“We do what they tell us,” Jack simply stated. It was the truth. That was what freedom lost, felt like. They continued to wait.
A large, round guard appeared at the door, “Let’s go,” beckoning them to move. They stood and proceeded down multiple corridors and through many guarded doors.
They could now hear a rumble; the sound of a large group of people.
Two guards opened the large doors and they could see the other inmates. They were sitting at picnic-like tables with benches bolted in place. Many eyes turned and looked up at the new intruders into this space. They were ushered over to the line where they proceeded to grab their trays and wait their turn.
Gripping their trays laden with food, they turned to find spaces to sit. Jack approached a table with open spots. Isiah followed him. He had warned Isiah about seeming too dependent and afraid.
Jack slid his tray on the table and into the bench. Isiah followed his movement.
The other inmates seated at the table stared at them but didn’t say anything. Jack picked up his thin plastic spork, the least dangerous utensil, and scooped up peas. He sensed something behind him a second too late; a beefy hand shoved his arm and the peas scattered on the table in front of him.
“This is my spot.” A deep voice growled behind Jack. The others seated at the table were now sitting back, amused. Jack ignored the action; he gripped his spork and scooped more peas.
“You hear me?” Another shove and the peas scattered all over the table again.
Jack looked around the perimeter of the room. He noticed a few of the guards were also looking over with interest. He took a breath and looked around behind him.
The man behind him was no giant but the beefy hand was attached to a thick stocky body. Beady dark eyes peered down from a bushy set of eyebrows on a protruding brow.
“There’s room for you,” Jack stated, motioning with a nod next to him.
“No, that’s my space. You stupid or something?”
Jack knew he was being tested. He quickly stood up. The beefy man had not sized him up well; Jack stood four inches taller. Beefy did not even have a tray. Jack could see the flash of concern in the other man’s eyes and felt a slight bit of pity for him. Then he saw Beefy’s expression harden; Jack knew what Beefy had decided to do.
Jack swung his left arm up quickly and blocked the hook coming toward him. With his right arm he slammed his palm into Beefy’s face. Blood spurted from Beefy’s nose.
Around them the other inmates had begun yelling, they were in need of excitement. Four guards now flanked them, two of them grabbing Beefy, and the other two, Jack.
“You just lost another meal. Don’t you ever get tired of this, you dumbass?”
“Down to the cooler for both of you,” barked one of the guards behind Jack as Jack was pulled from the room.
Isiah watched as Jack was led away. The only familiar face he knew but at least Jack had demonstrated how to protect space. Isiah would be ok, as long as he remembered the rules.
Jack found himself in a small room, empty but for a mattress with a flimsy gray blanket on the floor; solitary. Not minding the seclusion, he sat down on the springy but clean mattress. Jack closed his eyes, beginning his prayer with thanks.
When he opened his eyes he felt peaceful despite the surroundings. He lay back and simply thought about the last few weeks. After the trial the events went quickly. He was heartbroken of course; his wife was angry. What was he doing here? He had prayed for understanding; in the meantime he would have faith and trust.
Movement in the small window in the door caught Jack’s eye. He waited. Nothing happened. Now he closed his eyes and rested. Jack wasn’t sure how much time passed. Without clocks or a horizon, time was very hard to pin down. The door to the room was opening. He was very surprised to see one of the attorneys who had defended him enter the room.
“Hey Jack. Surprised to see me?” Alan had a smile on his face.
“Definitely. What are you doing here?”
“We thought I might be the best bearer of the good news,” Alan paused for dramatic effect, “You’re free to go.”
“What?” the disbelief on Jack’s face and in his voice was evident.
“I’ll tell you the story on our ride out of here. It’s a good one,” Alan grinned, “Let’s put it down to God’s mysterious ways.”
Jack stood up. He shook the hand that was extended to him. He saw two guards as he strode out the door. They had curious looks on their faces; they wished they knew more. He wished he knew more too.