Every so often I check the database of inmates in Michigan prisons to confirm that some of my friends are still where I last left them. Is that an odd thing to read?
From my early teens into my 20s many of the people I knew were either in and out of jail or prison, or were sent away for lengthy sentences. It was kind of just a fact of life, and although for some of these people it upset me a lot to not have them around, for some of them I knew that the rest of society was a lot better off with them behind bars. It is a strange quirk of my schema of the world that I am simultaneously a law-and-order right winger and also someone who since the age of 7 wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer and still agrees in theory with certain principles of the ACLU. I stand behind the police and the military, but believe that many criminals get a raw deal in the justice system. It’s a narrow bridge I walk, but like with most issues, I make my decisions on a case-by-case basis.
In any case, over the years I have felt a certain sense of peace that although I lost touch with these particular people, at least I knew where they are. I guess it’s like putting your grandma’s wedding dress in a box in the attic, or keeping your great-aunt’s crystal goblets in storage somewhere. You have no intention of using those items, but you are happy that they exist in the world and you could theoretically access them if you wanted to. That’s a kind of cruddy way to boil it down when I’m talking about human beings, but it’s the ugly truth of how I felt, so I’m saying it like it is.
But as of 2014 five of my nearest and dearest have been discharged from the system. Two of them had been sentenced in the 80’s for murder and were serving life sentences. It’s not like these are people you can look up on Facebook (which I don’t have in any case). Even if guys in that sort of crowd did things like go on Facebook (uh, let’s call that one doubtful…), these people went into prison when there was no such thing as widespread internet. Cell phones were giant bricks that you only saw on TV shows of rich people (I imagine this was the case; I didn’t watch such TV shows, but I think I remember it from an Eddie Murphy movie…). I knew literally two people in the 80’s who owned their own computers (one of whom was my father, a computer science nerd with degrees in both math and physics. He worked for IBM. Get my drift on that one???). In school we had a “computing” class where we learned typing, but on a computer keyboard instead of a typewriter, and practiced for weeks and weeks to write the following program:
10 print “Julie”
20 goto 10
To be fair, we also figured out how to add color to the above program, and to add spaces so when it printed our names across the computer screen it would make columns or angles. We wrote our names with our friends’ names, our names with the names of boys we liked, bad words, etc etc etc. And this was endlessly entertaining to us, because computers were so new and exciting. So the odds of a guy who went into prison in the 80’s jumping into technology as a first order of business are pretty slim. More likely he is running the streets somewhere trying to figure out how to trade in his Fila gym shoes and his sweet Adidas track suit for whatever styling folks are sporting in 2015 and trying to be simultaneously enough of an OG (original gangster) to get street cred while not looking like such an OG that he seems like an old fogie.
Also, these guys don’t keep addresses. They stay in their grannies’ basements and on the couches of friends and in the beds of random baby mammas. So once they are not in The System, they tend to vaporize. They don’t get found unless they want to be found or they want to find you. Clearly these are not men who will be hopping on planes to visit me in Washington, nor will they be taking buses cross-country to show up and say hey for no special reason.
What I never would have anticipated, though, was that it actually upset me that they are out and about. I am happy for them in the way that one gets happy for a friend when something nice happens. Those who are too institutional-minded to live outside of the prison walls will go back in, but maybe a few of them will have a second (or fifth or seventh or twentieth…) chance. But I feel kind of unglued. It’s like a part of my own past has been erased and a part of my own story has ceased to exist. I know this is irrational (a quality I abhor)and yet I feel how I feel.
I suppose it’s also hypocritical of me to think it’s perfectly fine for my life to go on as per normal but expect their lives to remain frozen in time. I certainly don’t have this expectation of my friends who haven’t been locked up; they have husbands or wives and children and/or pets, and I’ve never had a problem taking that all in stride. But somewhere along the line my prison pals have ceased to be real to me and started to be cardboard cutouts of themselves.
It’s not like when other people do this. I know how that tape rolls. Insert criminal script, press play: Inmate shuffling along in jumpsuit, exercising in yard, seated in court, usually sporting tattoos (preferably gang-affiliated, if you have a very good imagination). But these were multi-faceted human beings to me. I laughed with them at movies and cried with them when relatives died and ate with them and walked the streets with them when we were mutually too broke to do anything else. We had long talks about police injustice before it was en vogue and debated what the best things were to study and why certain people were the way they were and who were the most likely people in our crowd to get killed first (we turned out to be wrong on all of our guesses). We were puzzled and frustrated and angsty and angry, just like the good suburban teenagers were- it’s just that the content of our angst was a bit different from theirs. And when I woke up and went to school they woke up and went to steal cars and rob people. Yet I loved those guys.
By the time I was in 10th grade I had seen more ugliness than I wanted to, which made me feel very sophisticated and very sick about the state of the world. I realized I could do more to help my friends by getting good grades than by running the streets with them, and by my senior year I knew how to do legal research. By college I was writing appellate briefs for a criminal defense attorney, and was still hopeful that with the right people in their corner most criminals could be reformed. Also by then, several of my friends were doing life sentences for murder, several of my friends had been murdered, and my first real boyfriend had been in jail more times than I had been on the honor roll (that was a lot).
By the time I moved to Israel I lost track of who had broken my heart more- my friends or the justice system that kept them locked up instead of helping them. As an adult, I am still conflicted about the best ways to keep society safe from criminals while still being civilized about the treatment of those same people. I not only don’t claim to have all the answers, I don’t even claim to know the right questions to ask. All I know for sure is that I plan to continue to stay curious.
I think that will be my life sentence…