Beyond the wall

“…spared the suffering of the damned, but denied the beatific vision of God.” –“Purgatory,” Catechism of the Catholic Church


The injury occurred during a basketball game on the yard. I went up for a rebound and came down on the side of my foot, driving my ankle to the ground until there was an audible pop. Down I went, holding my quivering leg and inventing new ways to say the same profanity.

When a guard later wheeled me into the prison ER, I expected to be told my ankle was broken, since it listed to the left without any effort on my part. I thought they might put a cast on it, give me a set of crutches and some ibuprofen, then return me to the block to deal with it. Reasonable medical care isn’t something you expect in a place where they prefer “natural death” to intervention—where what is considered negligence on the outside passes for adequate treatment.

It was Saturday, and with no x-ray technicians available the doctor made some calls, then told me I would be going to an outside hospital. He gave me a pain pill (crushed and mixed with water to avoid abuse), put my ankle in a temporary splint, and left me to wait.

A couple of guards muttered incredulous comments about the cost of an ambulance while I stared at the splint, trying to keep my face neutral. Rattling in my head like a pair of carelessly tossed dice were two words: outside hospital. Then one: outside. Through the haze of oxycodone, I focused on the waves of pain instead of what “outside” meant, but this failed as a long-forgotten beacon lanced through it all. Outside. Outside. Outside.

I had not been beyond the wall of Central Prison in 17 years. For my entire adult life, I’ve existed in the same 200 yards of dust and cement. Prison is so ingrained in my thoughts, it is simply an extension of headspace—impossible to step out of except in death. Even my dreams are tainted with fragments of this waking nightmare. It takes more time to brush and floss my teeth than to walk to the chow hall, the rec yard, or the canteen. I’ve become so accustomed to the lack of space and movement that an empty 7-by-9 foot cell feels voluminous. Many of the people around me are so familiar, what they say or do can be counted on like a drip from a leaky faucet.

This microcosm of life is so removed from the outside that newspapers, magazines, and the TV provide figments of the imagination too distant to touch or smell or feel to be true. Even on the yard, a craggy wall surrounds our dirt lot and cracked concrete basketball court, hiding freedom from hungry eyes and erasing memories of a different world than existed before…this.

Now arrow slit windows blur a landscape in miniature—buildingstreesbirdsroadstrain—as untouchable as the Earth from the moon.

It is difficult to picture something you’ve forgotten. Then, when you’ve been reintroduced, it’s impossible to understand how you forgot.

Not until we passed the checkpoint in front of the prison did it strike me we were beyond the wall. As the last recognizable barrier of my concrete world dwindled, there was no doubt in my mind I remained incarcerated. Hands cuffed, chained at the waist, I sat on a motorized gurney with one leg shackled to the other over the temporary splint. To my left sat a transport officer with hands gripping the neck of her bulletproof vest. Two more followed in a pursuit vehicle. I noted these things, along with all of the storage compartments in the back of the ambulance, as enthralled with them as the pavement unfolding behind us at a rapid pace.

So many. So many trees and leaves, tall trunks towering over paved roads with cars glittering in the sun. So much space expanding and filling the square windows before me. Engines hummed, a car honked and I jumped, laughing at the sound. The officer looked at me and I stared ahead, wide-eyed, then at her as the full significance of this trip became something I couldn’t keep to myself. “I haven’t been out of that prison in 17 years.”

She looked at me—in disbelief, incomprehension, curiosity—then resumed talking to the EMT.

Street signs punctuated roads into neighborhoods both welcoming and alien and so vivid it made my eyes water. Colors glittered. Even rundown houses with their rusted oil tanks and peeling paint, overgrown weeds and shuttered windows were perfect. My eyes jumped to cars I didn’t recognize and a few I remembered from TV ads. They were real! Futuristic and fantastic and me grinning like an idiot. Gloriously green leaves sprouted in lush bursts from branches shifting-swaying-waving and living out moments of creation as happily as they could.

We pulled into the hospital emergency entrance where I was wheeled to a bed, x-rayed, told nothing was broken, and put in a tiny waiting room. Up to this point, I had received some curious glances from hospital staff, but most of it was reserved for the three pistol-toting transport officers in their vests. They paced and got in the way and gave serious looks warding off conversation. As a result, eyes seemed to skip over me so I sat there, bemused and unable to shift without grimacing in pain or the cuffs sliding up my skinny arms.

Finally, three nurses arrived with more temporary cast materials in arms. There wasn’t enough space in the room for six people, so two officers stepped out while the nurses got to work. A friendly conversation between the female transport officer and a nurse about what my foot would smell like in six weeks and what a pain in the ass showering would be, with periodic instructions for me to breathe when they moved my leg.

The friendly banter died when the male nurse asked an officer what my red jumpsuit meant.

“Death row.”

Up to that point, despite the chains and guards, I had adapted to the otherness of the hospital and my thoughts were entirely in the moment. This was how I became aware of the major difference between the “outside” and the “inside.” Silence. This preternatural quiet was the emptying of thought into space where before it simply bounced and reverberated from the walls of my confinement. The “moment” in prison is full of hatred, bitterness, regret, and emotional pain. It never goes away and being at peace with it simply means you’ve grown accustomed to its oppressive weight on your back.

People who like to say you can be free in mind but not in body while incarcerated have never experienced the substantial concentration of a life sentence. There is no real freedom—just the ability to do mental gymnastics to convince yourself everything will be okay when in your heart of hearts you know there is nothing natural or okay or freeing about confinement and it is not necessarily a lesser evil than death. This weight is always present inside. Always nagging in the corner of the mind. Always reminding you of the utter wrongness of confinement.

Maybe it was the air and vibrant colors that hypnotized me into a false sense of well-being, but at the mention of death row, the noise came roaring back and I sank into the hospital bed beneath its pressure.

The nurse holding my leg up yelped as if pinched. At the same time the nurse in charge blurted “What?!” and snapped her attention to the guard who volunteered the information. Nobody moved or said anything until the silence embarrassed even the transport officers.

“Wow, that’s incredibly sad,” she said.

The male nurse looked like he wanted to hide his face had his hands not been full.

A familiar sense of shame of isolation echoed through the years since the trial and I found myself wanting to leave the hospital and return…then I stopped the thought as soon as it occurred. What did she mean? Was it “sad” because they were wasting resources on a condemned man, or “sad” because their profession is about preserving life and administering to those in need? Maybe she was commenting on her realization that a normal human being in need of care sat before her, rather than the sensationalized, deceptive image of a monster unfit for life and liberty? The last seemed the most plausible.

My physical presence reminded her there are real people on death row—living, thinking, feeling people who will be put to death because the law says, “Die.”

In the disquiet that followed, the RN in charge gave a few instructions on wrapping my ankle and left without another word. The other female nurse patted my knee with a small smile and left the molding of the cast to the male nurse. He was apologetic.

“It will hurt. Push foot against my chest.” I moved, breathing hard into the pain. “You know,” he said, “No one ever put foot on me. Ever. You first.” He looked at me, serious, his Russian accent making me think of him as some mobster trying to escape an ugly past. More than anything I appreciated his attempt to put me at ease.

I pushed hard and only moved an inch, my face breaking into a cold sweat. “It’s a good habit, not letting people put their feet on you,” I said. “They might think you’re a doormat.”

He smiled as the material hardened around my ankle, tapped it with a knuckle, then eased it to the bed. “All done,” he said, and left to get a wheelchair.

Thirty minutes later, exhausted and ready to leave, they wheeled me out of the hospital and into the warm air and light of the parking lot. We were on a slight rise so I could see above the trees. In the wavering heat, leaves fluttered and branches waved. A car revved its engine. My ankle a distant ache, my eyes jumped from trees to cars and buildings and people, then locked on the vermillion brilliance of the setting sun. The light hurt to look upon, but I stared and struggled to inhale this achingly beautiful life on earth, holding onto the awe it inspired.

For the briefest moment, I remembered another life, where sunsets were normal and I didn’t drink from this world as though dying of thirst. Then it was gone, lost in the gathering shadows and sound of clinking chains.