The voice sounded so cryptic, almost dire.
The very recognizable woman’s voice, which I had heard so many times before from messages left on my cell phone, seemed to be warning me of impending danger. It was like listening to a recorded message cautioning you that a hurricane was heading your way, so I’d better get indoors quickly, or risk grave danger.
Whoever the woman hired to make the recordings was, she appeared to have a unique ability to sound dramatic, concerned, and dead serious.
I had long ago signed up for these messages to get updates about an inmate in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections – government-speak for someone in prison.
This morning, rather early, I got the new, and presumably final, message.
“This offender has been released from custody,” the voice said, with just the right somber tone to make it all sound urgent. “If you have any concerns about your immediate safety, contact your local law enforcement agency. Or if you have an emergency, call 911.”
I deleted the message, and went back to my morning routine. There were teeth to be brushed, plants to be watered, a cat litter box to be cleaned. Not once did I walk over to my window and peer out, wondering if I should be nervously glancing outside to see if anyone suspicious was in my back yard.
But I thought for a few minutes about that dire warning from the Florida Statewide VINE Service, with VINE meaning victim notification. I presume that this service under Florida’s DOC gives that same warning to everyone when an inmate has completed their sentence and been released – watch your back, buddy, you-know-who is on the loose again.
And I thought about the “offender” who had been released at 12:01 a.m. today, and the notion of him posing a danger to me. I recalled one of the very first times we’d ever met, in January 2010, when I hired him to work for me as a freelance photographer. On a surprisingly cold day, when temperatures never rose above 32 degrees, we went on assignment together for the first time to a museum in Winter Park. We got there early, before the event had started, so I took a walk over to a dock overlooking a lake. Standing there on that dock, I glanced out at the water, wondering whether it was colder than the freezing air temperatures. And that’s when my then-22-year-old photographer snuck up behind me, and, without warning, gave me a shove – sending me plunging right for the lake. I gasped, knowing I was about to answer my own question about how cold that water truly was.
Only I never hit the water – my friend grabbed my jacket, and with one strong pull and impressive display of strength, he yanked me back onto that dock before I tumbled off it. While I stood there looking dizzy and disoriented, he laughed out loud.
And that, I realized, was the closest he ever came to posing any “harm” to me – assuming you consider practical jokes to be harmful, which I don’t. Watching him laughing on that dock, and then finding a frozen snake on the grass and trying to revive it, I never imagined this good natured and outgoing young man would ever end up behind bars. And yet four months later, he was being sentenced to two years in a Florida prison for a probation violation.
And now, 20 months later, it’s over. He’s out of prison. He’s home.
Another friend of mine, who served nearly two decades in federal prison, courtesy of our nation’s over-hyped drug laws, called me this morning to ask if my friend had been released. I said he had.
“What an experience this has been for you,” she said. “You’ve learned a great deal through all of this.”
Talk about an understatement.
I thought about this as well last week, while watching the Republican presidential candidates debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., when the dialogue shifted to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum’s past support for allowing people who had been convicted of a crime, and served their sentence, to be able to vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney challenged him on that, saying anyone convicted of a violent crime should never be allowed to vote again. This is the politician being tough on crime, warning anyone who has violated the law that for the rest of their lives, they’re going to be marked as trouble, not worthy of the same privileges the rest of us law abiding folks take for granted.
It’s a truly bizarre position politically, because if there’s one thing I have learned from knowing two people who have been in prison, it’s that the system does have a genuine stake in what we call rehabilitation. They try to connect inmates being released with jobs programs, medical care providers, substance abusing treatment programs, halfway houses – anything to help them succeed. And that’s our message to them: you’ve served your sentence, and now we want you to go back to the community and be a productive citizen– even as the righteous politicians who fund these agencies run around warning that if you’ve committed a crime once, you’ll always be marked as a loser. Nice recipe for success.
One thing I did learn from having a friend in prison – and from frequently visiting him in that prison near Starke – is that not everyone who is incarcerated is a career lawbreaker. There are some who had a lengthy criminal record that finally landed them a stiff sentence – and more than a few who are in prison for errors in judgment. The guy who drank too much and got behind the wheel of his car is no more a career criminal than the guy who accidentally hit two kids because he was texting while driving and had taken his eyes off the road. Bad judgment isn’t a good thing, but it doesn’t make someone a repeat offender – the same with my young friend, now 24, who initially got arrested after a fight at a party. Again, nothing to do with being a career criminal.
That’s why that VINE recording seemed so foul and offensive to me, with it’s eerie warning about my “immediate safety.” Again, it’s a part of a system that paints with a broad brush – all offenders are alike, and scary, so watch out. It’s a bit like saying if you know one southerner, you know them all – hardly an apt description for a transient, international city like Orlando, but why quibble?
These past 20 months have been quite a learning curve. If you’re never had a friend, family member or loved one who has been incarcerated, consider yourself quite lucky – it can be a harrowing experience at times.
Throughout these nearly two years, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the key players within the Department of Corrections, most of them practical minded people who do care about the issue of rehabilitation – and struggle with the pitiful, meager financial resources they get from the state to do this.
And it’s no small irony that the prison that my friend was incarcerated at, The New River O Unit in Raiford, is now among the seven prisons or work camps that Gov. Rick Scott plans to close by July to save money. I have odd memories of that place – nearly getting bitten by a dog that had been trained to be friendlier to people through a program called ADAPT, where inmates train dogs taken from a local humane shelter; eating some of the worst food imaginable from the prison canteen, only to have my friend and other inmates tell me it’s a huge improvement from what the prisoners themselves get served daily; listening to the corrections officers fume with anger over Scott’s decision to shut down their facility; and, perhaps most sadly, watching mothers and girlfriends bring little children to the prison, to spend some time with daddy. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch.
VINE got it wrong when it warned me to be concerned about my “immediate safety,” just as our court system screwed up badly when it sentenced my friend to two long years in prison for a minor probation violation. I wonder sometimes if the state prosecutors, judges and politicians are in a marathon race to see who can be the toughest on law-breakers – even when they are dealing with the bad judgment category, not the recidivism at its worst crowd. Collectively, they’re a uniquely pathetic bunch to watch, so hopelessly out of step with what the prison system is truly like and is trying to accomplish.
I do have more respect today for DOC, though, and for the people I’ve met at the probation offices who work hard to reach out to, and help, these badly maligned inmates. I also have a huge amount of respect and admiration for the hard-working activists within the African American community who, in defiance of public opinion polls, understand that not every inmate is slated for a life of crime and lobby hard for programs to help them succeed, and for full restoration of their civil rights. This truly is a worthy goal.
I’m glad my friend is back home, where he belongs. And I’m relieved his prison experience is over.
So I leave you with this thought: Next time you’re driving on the highway, and you get a text message on your cell, and you lift that phone to see who it’s from and take your eyes off the road for a few seconds …. toss the phone down, look back at the highway, and ask yourself why we treat the “bad judgment” offenders so maliciously. You can ask Mitt Romney to answer this question for you, quite succinctly: if you screw up, even just once, baby, then for Heaven’s sake, we’ll never forgive you, and always look down on you as dirt.
Now go succeed.
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.