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Letter From the Boulder Jail

a friend of circumstance in the vortex, going down.....down

This is Dark Cloud on Saturday, February 25, 1995.

I just received one of the sadder letters I’ve ever pulled out of my mailbox. It was from a guy I served time with in jail. It seems a world away and hazy now, even though I've only been out a few weeks and am not really out either, just on work release. But at least I am not in the white pajamas I wore for the four months, and I am not locked in a cell every night, with the mustard yellow walls, the dark blue writing desk and the toilet with no seat three feet from your pillow. I don't have flashlights in my face every hour at night, and I don't have to cook for three hundred and fifty people every day. And any time I want, I can step outside in the fresh air without the fashion accessories of waist chain, handcuffs, and a guard. You do have to be meticulous in your records as to where you go and where you are going, calling in all the time, but it has its pleasures compared with the real thing.

Nonetheless, the letter from my friend was sad, even beyond the fact that he was still there and I am out. One of our social group, the ones who played bridge a lot, was sent to the Department of Corrections for two years. Two years. He had just turned 20, I think, and he was looking forward to going to prison, because they let him smoke there, and you have more freedom than in a mere jail. He was a kid who needed a parent and never got one. I’m willing to bet he finds his role model where he is going. At the age of 20, his goal was to go to prison.

Where he could smoke.

Worse, at his departure, the bridge group I worked to establish fell apart- they don’t play it anymore. Bummer. Now they play poker, which is a good game but a different mentality than that which you bring to the game of bridge. In bridge, silence and thought are often the preferred qualities you seek in a partner. Not so in poker, where BS and constant chatter is de rigueur. One game is a plausible escape from you surroundings, one is a celebration of it.

Surviving in jail, although a melodramatic phrase, requires one of two things: you either must totally subsume yourself in the world, or you totally tune it out. I did it by the latter, abetted, I should say, by the fact I had a radio show and a book in the works. In many ways, you authors will note, writing a book and being in jail are not at different ends of the scale. I answered lots of letters at length, even to those of you who wrote me based on the newspapers. I have no doubt that there are not a few of you correspondents who did not expect six page replies. But the excuse to write was a wonderful release and exercise. I cannot thank you enough. I got lots of mail and many visitors, except for the last few weeks, and you cannot imagine how grateful I am. If that was not sufficiently expressed in my reply, I say so now, again.

You cannot imagine - I cannot imagine - what it would be like to have no mail and no visitors, which is the fate of many of the inmates.

To a degree, this is karma, and in some cases it is clearly the preference of the inmate. Still - it is unbelievably depressing to imagine it, having been there.

What was most depressing about the letter was the implication that they didn't want to hear from me anymore; many of you can smirk and think, well, you ass, who would want to hear from you, but there is the sad impression that they don't want to hear of anything outside their world, that they want to forget the outside world exists, that they want only to construct the edifices to get them through. But those creations they think are coping mechanisms are really structures to ruin their lives: the reaction to any authority, no matter how benign, as a threat; the felt need to put something over on someone every day to prove to yourself you are alive. The general denial of guilt. The admission there is no future- and who cares, anyway? The elevation of even a game of cards to physical violence and intimidation. The total degradation of women by their ridiculous tales of fornication, that among the younger inmates reveal they can not distinguish between rape and making love and in some cases that they are still uninitiated in the charms of women whatsoever.

I realize now, that my ridiculous fight to establish an ongoing bridge game was my pathetic and vainglorious attempt to beat the system where it mattered: in the mental outlook of the inmates. But in the end, I was just another number, already hazy in memory, already forgotten by a twenty year old kid now in one of many prisons around Canyon City. Yet another failure.

And the letter from my acquaintance - did I once call him a friend? - was as final a goodbye as I could imagine. I don't miss the circumstances, but I wish many of these guys well.