When I told my parents about the prison, I cried into my twice baked potato.
By Zach Walker | Storyteller
He had a teardrop tattoo under his left eye. According to some YouTube video about gangs, that means he probably committed murder. Or rape. Or he’s the reigning champion of the prison-yard fight ring.
He was black and had dreadlocks that traveled over his shoulders and parked in the middle of his gray sweatshirt. He was built like a linebacker. Stocky, broad chest, muscular neck. Looked like he could snap a little girl in half. Or an old man. Or some innocent bystander, probably white and upper middle class like me, who happened to be caught in the wrong neighborhood after a late showing of an Oscar nominee at a hip inner-city theater.
He didn’t talk too good. His words spilled out of his mouth intermittently like hard candies stuck to the jar. His eyes wandered with no clear focus. Like he was planning an escape. Or looking for someone to strangle.
The night before I left for the prison, my dad told me to stay close to the guards. To not interact with the inmates. To get the hell out if I sensed any trouble. I didn’t even tell my mom I was going.
He didn’t want his only child to become an entry in the Baldwin Bulletin obituaries.
I had been assigned to report on a race that was being held at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. The “Second Chance 5K.” Any inmate could sign up. Open to 533 murderers, 296 sex offenders, 204 domestic abusers, and 1,000 other criminals I wasn’t quite as scared of but still made my muscles constrict.
This was the place where, just eight months prior, an inmate bludgeoned a prison guard with a prison-issued hammer. So, I understood my dad’s fear. He didn’t want his only child to become an entry in the Baldwin Bulletin obituaries.
My experience with prisons and inmates to this point was 12 viewings of The Shawshank Redemption and that kid at my elementary school who set his friend on fire and maybe went to juvie. I never asked. I grew up surrounded by trees and gravel roads and rich white farmers. I only went into the city to have dinner with my parents at The Capital Grille or Fogo de Chão or some other place with cloth napkins and waiters who called me sir. So I was scared, too.
When the metal door slid open, I was no longer on the outside. I walked in the shadow of the associate warden, a man about six foot five who reminded me of mobsters from Scorsese movies. Behind glass doors cross-stitched with bars, inmates in white T-shirts folded towels and stared at me. I didn’t touch my camera.
I stuffed my hands in my coat pockets either because of the cold or because I was nervous. A group of men wearing grey sweats and blaze orange knit hats gathered to my left in the prison yard. No handcuffs, no guards with rifles, no restraint. The only thing between me and a horde of murderers was asphalt and air.
My mom visited a prison when we lived in Alaska. That’s why my dad didn’t want me to go. She was there to look at woodwork created by the inmates and buy a few pieces for the cultural center where she worked. She spoke to criminals such as Butcher Baker, a serial killer who would kidnap and rape women before releasing them into the woods to hunt down with a Ruger Mini-14 and a knife. She didn’t buy his box.
That story always terrified me. The idea of being within an arm’s reach of a someone who took a life because they wanted to made me shiver. Just like I did in the prison yard. Maybe it was the thought of turning out like Jacob Wetterling who was murdered and buried 171 miles from my house. Or maybe it was the alternate reality where my mom gets strangled by Butcher Baker in the woodshop. Or maybe it was just the cold.
The men ran 14 laps around an asphalt track. Unkempt beards fluttered in the wind and tattoos blurred atop churning limbs. A prison staff member shouted encouragements through a megaphone. “You got this! Come on, you can go faster than that!” State corrections executives ran, too. Without any guards.
I felt his pain in my throat.
As they passed the starting point, each lap painting grimaces across faces slick with sweat, the prisoners were becoming more than just mistakes shrouded in grey cloth. I saw smiles, conversation, banter. Mr. Martin, a prisoner with two tight braids and a Nikon camera, talked with the associate warden about the upcoming issue of the prison newspaper. A runner with face tattoos and a white beard complained about being passed on the last lap. I saw men with scars missing teeth high-five female staff members who looked no older than me. I felt my fear dissolve.
After the race, an inmate collapsed on the asphalt. His chest heaved as he drew breaths of frigid air. His limbs splayed across the track. I felt his pain in my throat. Years of running the mile in a small-town Wisconsin gym tinged with sweaty compression shorts and Axe body spray flashed in my memory as I watched. He was exhausted like me. In need of a drink of water to soothe the burn like me. He found solace in the extended tattooed arm of a fellow jogger. His head rested on a shoulder padded with prison greys as they embraced.
Then I met the man with the teardrop tattoo. He was my inmate interview as selected by the prison PR guy. I wondered who he was. Did he like to write? Did he play baseball as a kid? What position? Did he hate chemistry, too? He was supposed way to get a quote on the event from someone on the inside. I couldn’t ask his name or take his picture or probe to find out what got him arrested. I couldn’t talk to him about hobbies and fears and regrets. But I wanted to.
I wanted to know him. To make a connection. To discover who the man was behind the tattoo. Behind the prison sentence. Behind the solemn expression that I assumed could only come from sleeping in a cage.
I asked him where he wants to go. Who he wants to be if he ever gets out.
He wanted to go home to Louisiana. To work at his family’s furniture store. To make it better.
I asked about the prison community. Why was everyone so cordial and comfortable with the guards only having tasers? So relaxed in a crowd of convicted bad guys. So seemingly content and real. So opposite what I expected or what my dad thought.
“They treat us like we ain’t just criminals,” he said. “I ain’t just a criminal. I’m still worth something.”
I recently read two news stories about the Stillwater Prison. One was about the man who murdered the guard. He barricaded the woodshop door and swung the hammer until his victim stopped moving. The other was about an inmate who died in his cell during a 40-year sentence for killing a cop in a high-speed chase. The police didn’t state a cause. Then I read the comments.
“Why don’t they put a noose in all jail cells. I would hope some of them would use it. Maybe this guy would have…”
“Better yet put his killer ass into a wood chipper aimed at a sewage plant.”
“Burn in HE’LL you P.O.S.”
My chest tightens when I imagine the men or women behind their computers vomiting that hate. I figure they’ve never met a prisoner outside of their Netflix que. Never looked into the eyes of an incarcerated man and shook his hand. Never listened to two inmates laugh as they embrace after running together to no particular destination.
All those commenters did was react. I imagine they didn’t picture the imagery of their comments. They don’t know what it would be like to stand in the same cell as a man hanging lifeless from a noose. Or to listen to the crunch of bones as a body is tossed like a felled branch into a woodchipper. And I’m positive they have no idea what burning flesh smells like. Or if it smells different in Hell.
When I walk down Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, I hold my car key like a shank and hide it in my coat pocket. People sitting on the sidewalk scare me. They lean against bike racks smoking cigarettes and yell at people who walk past. I always think one’s going to reach out and grab me. Like hands through my basement banister.
I slide the lock on my car door when there’s someone with an “Anything Helps” sign at a stoplight. My dad always told me those guys were scammers. Probably not even homeless. Just out to get me. Or to get something from me.
I feel my heart rate increase when I park at a gas station and the car in the stall over is shaking with loud rap music. Must be some sort of thug. The kind of person I’m afraid of passing on a downtown sidewalk at night. Or during the day.
But when I shook the hand of the man with the teardrop tattoo, my heart rate didn’t move. Maybe it was because I was getting paid. Maybe I saw him as more than a collection of mistakes. I didn’t shake or step back or wonder if he was going to snap my wrist. I looked into his eyes and he looked into mine. We both must have looked like aliens to each other.
When I told my parents about the prison, I cried into my twice baked potato. “We’ve all messed up,” I said. “They’ve just messed up bigger.” I sucked snot back into my head. “If we treat them like garbage, how do we expect them to get better? To be a ‘functioning member of society’?” I think about those men every day. Their smiles. Their laughter. The bars.
The fear still tangles itself around my spine and gnaws at my core.
But I still fear. I still grasp my key and lock my car and take deep breaths to lower my heart rate. I want those commenters to change their ways, but often I live in the same reality. And I can’t get over it.
I want to stroll down Minneapolis streets with my head up and arms relaxed. I want to open my passenger side door and invite the man to dinner, letting him toss his “Anything Helps” sign in the backseat of my rusted Chevy Silverado. I want to bob my head with the rhythm of the rap music like I do on road trips to national parks and smile when the driver locks eyes with me. But I’m not there yet. The fear still tangles itself around my spine and gnaws at my core. And I can’t shake the feeling that there’s someone behind me. Someone big and dangerous and different. A man with a teardrop tattoo.