All He Had To Do Was Turn Around

I’ve never been in prison. The closest I ever came was not related to any crime, but occurred when I was a UPS driver. The prison was a daily stop on my delivery route. I arrived mid-morning, and went through a security process that allowed me access to proceed down a hallway to the mail room.  It was during that short walk that I passed by a window giving full view of the inmates milling around in a recreation room.

I remember they were loud, and walked either with a slow shuffle or a swagger.  Some greeted each other with structured handshakes reminiscent of gang brotherhood. Others jostled each other with elbows and shoulders in a way that was rough, but full of camaraderie. And then there were the few men who appeared isolated from all groups. Perhaps they were–as I would learn—the “new fish” who had yet to find their place in the prison cliques. Or perhaps they were simply individuals who preferred their isolation. Looking through that window, it was hard to tell.

I don’t have a clue what life is like in prison. We’ve all heard stories, but they only give us a glimpse of what it’s like to live within the razor wire-surrounded walls.  What I do know is that going or not going to prison teeters on the one second difference between a wrongful or rightful decision.

*          *          *

One second.

I have a friend whose 18-year-old grandson, Derek, was recently sentenced to prison for a first-degree felony aggravated robbery charge. He and his buddy had the foolish idea to arm themselves with guns and rob an apartment occupied with several people.

One second was all that was required to stop in their tracks, turn around, and call it a day. But they didn’t.

Their plan was to barge in through the front door, point their weapons, yell a few expletive orders, then take the drugs and money, and run. Pretty straight forward.  Except they didn’t factor in a rifle pointing at them. Or being fired at, for that matter.

In the end, two people were killed. One was an occupant in the apartment, and the other was Derek’s buddy. Derek was lucky, though, and fled the scene with only a grazing shot to the leg, but was apprehended by the police just a few blocks away.

It was an irreversible moment as he was handcuffed and put in the police squad car. His soft-spoken and gentle good nature had gotten him entangled in his own ability to hang with any group of people. Be it the jocks, the geeks, the punks, or the wayward kids of mischief, he was intrigued by them all. Unfortunately, this time, he had hung with the wrong kid at the wrong time and place. While it was Derek’s choice to be there, he simply didn’t realize what he was getting into.

Although he never fired his gun, Derek’s involvement in the robbery proved catastrophic in terms of the prison sentence that justice dealt him…

Forty years.

*                 *                    *

Our lives are full of seconds, some of which have far greater repercussions than others.  How quickly one second was to become the darkest 40 years of his life. And it is that thought where my imagination wanders…

At night my mind travels to the prison that houses him. I choose nighttime, because that is when people are the most reflective. My wandering curiosity quietly enters the front doors, then slips past the security check point that grants access into the facility.  I meander through the hallways until I find Derek’s cell. I recognize him from newspaper articles that reported the botched robbery. He’s just brushed his teeth, and has climbed atop a bunk bed. Lights out. The entire prison settles in for the night.

My curiosity, though, is wide awake, and in need of answers. And it is there that my presumptive imagination finds them.

I stealthily perched at the end of his bed. Initially, there is some slight tossing and turning, which is normal during your first week in prison. But then, you lay still with your eyes gazing far, far beyond the ceiling. Into the night, as my mind freely travels, his, too, escapes. It goes home to his mother and sister—the two people he most dearly loves.  His dad has been out of the picture for years.

Derek sees them in the kitchen, eating beef stew together on a cold, snowy night. Frigid tree limbs tap against a window as they eat in silence. This used to be a kitchen that was the centerpiece for jovial conversations and sharing the events of the day. Now, it’s as if those days never existed. It is bleak. The slow pace at which they eat their stew is indicative not that the food is hot, but rather that something is missing—that something has been unfairly removed from their lives. They don’t understand why the law must be so strict. It all seems so unfair.  But the law is that if more than one person participates in a felony where death occurs, then all involved are equally responsible—even those who didn’t cause the death. Forty years is too long a time to wait, thinks Derek’s mother. I’ll be dead by then. 

It is a bittersweet place that he visits each night. But his fondest memories are all from his home. Either his mind goes there or remains back in prison, where he must listen to the late-night, psychotic laughter of his cellmate—a convicted rapist, who lies beneath on the lower bunk.  Unfortunately, it’s never easy blocking out reality.

I visited his cell to find an answer. To see what it was that he thought of most.

Loved ones and happiness.

The human body can turn 180 degrees in one second. He missed that opportunity, and will forever regret his decision.

May we all be so lucky to take some time to learn from his mistake…even if it’s just one second.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

 

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