Big Chills

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It happened to be one of the days when O block was scheduled for recreation.

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Rain had been threatening, but the sun was shining. Painted down both sides of every hallway at Mason there was a line. When walking down the hall, prisoners were required to walk the line. By the time I get out of prison, I will have stood in a line every day for more than 15 years. Prison is not just locks, gates doors; it is also lines.

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On that cold day in Mason, I got in line at the door of the cell block to walk the line of prisoners and line up at the door of the gym, where I got in the line to go to the yard. Around the walls of the gym were a few decrepit weight machines. A handball court was painted on the floor between two basketball goals; the basketball lines intersected with the handball lines as if to create enough confusion to discourage both games.


The gym was warmer than the block, but also potentially more dangerous. I witnessed the first of many beatings in that gym.

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It wasn't a fight. To call what I witnessed a fight would imply that the beaten man had a fair chance. He was surrounded and engulfed in punches and kicks. The object was to remove him from the general population of the prison. The beaten man, not those who beat him, was sent to solitary confinement. I will never know the reason the man was beaten. It could have been something as simple as cutting in front of someone in a line. Since I have been down, most of the violence I have seen erupted over trivialities like the placement of a chair on the wrong square of tile in the TV room.

There are similarities between violence and cold. But violence and cold are different because I could never become indifferent to the cold. I wonder sometimes what I am becoming. I followed the line to go outside to the yard, a few bare acres consisting of a dirt track surrounding an inner oval of sparse brown grass.

The track was rutted by men walking in circles for days and months on end; the ruts, trudged by innumerable feet, were full of water from the morning rains. There was also a small pavilion, with a metal picnic table chained to posts in the concrete, as well as a lone exercise bike with a torn seat, rusted into immobility. There was a piss and shit-covered toilet in a rotting wooden shack tacked onto the outside wall of the gym.

Once outside, I had to stay there for the duration of the hour and a half allotted for recreation. So I joined the walkers. Walking around in circles is what you make of it. It can be listless and tedious, purposeful and focused, or meditative. I have, as have all prisoners, become expert in walking circles.

I first began training to walk circles when I was in a mental-health facility after threatening suicide. I wandered around, in circles and circles, quoting all the poetry I could remember, trying to find the mind and self I seemed to have misplaced. It is important to walk the same direction as everyone else. It is also important to be careful who you walk with, if anyone. Who you walk with can identify your gang affiliations, your sexuality, or your charge. At Mason, I walked cold and alone. Another lesson that prison teaches is how to create for yourself an eye of calm in a hurricane of violence, mistrust and oppression.

I thought it would be warmer outside than it was in the block, but after the morning rain came a cold front. The porous jumpsuits that prisoners wore served only for modesty, not protection from the elements. So I walked faster to try to get warm.

Then it began to rain. First a sprinkle, then a drizzle, then a torrent. The prisoners filed into the pavilion until it was overflowing.

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I stood shoulder to shoulder with other men toward the middle of the crush, trying in vain to stand still without bumping into anyone, which could be considered disrespectful and invite retaliation. Because there was no lightning with the rain, we would not be allowed back into the gym. The temperature dropped. I stood with the other prisoners on that yard for another hour, wet and shaking. We shape our reality and in turn our reality shapes us. I created the reality of my incarceration.

I created it by betraying myself, my family, my friends and a community that had supported and nurtured me.

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When I got to Mason, I cried at night, in my bunk, out of pity for myself, for the abused child in me and for the abuse and hurt that I had furthered by searching for and downloading obscene images of children. The cold of those nights, the shaking cold my tears, have now become a part of my identity, too.

The cold has condemned me with a finality that no judge or prison sentence could match.

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I finally got back inside the block at Mason. I finally got warm. I have spent these years working to heal. The warmth of a healed life is at least partial payment of the debt I owe to my children, their mother who raised them in my absence and all those I hurt. I know I will always be doubted by society, because people who commit crimes are never completely allowed back across the line into humanity that is especially true for sex offenders.

Best of luck! Great work Cuz. You do wonderful things..

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Way to go Tom! What an exceptionally unique passion. I'm so pleased that I can help contribute towards such a worthwhile goal.

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