Judge enters the court, robe trailing
He climbs the steps to his perch.
Prisoner follows, draped in orange
Shuffling, hands and feet bound
Escorted, fore and aft
By two sheriffs in full riot gear:
Body armor, Uzi stun guns, Glock 19s.
They walk languidly
As if the dingy courtroom has caught them in its spell
The prisoner’s eyes search the assembly for his mother
They meet mine.
Is up for re-sentencing
Since the highest court has ruled
That inmates damned to life without parole as children
Now might have a second chance.
Though from the look of him
He could be fifty.
His lawyer asks him gently to recount
How he has lived his life in hell
How he became a poet,
Teacher, coach, guru to the captives
Respected by inmates and wardens alike.
He took all the self-improvement classes
the prison had to offer.
The first one, he’d begged to be let in
Even though lifers like him
They’re throw-away people, the warden said.
He’d brought the older men together
To give advice and comfort to the young
Teenagers, running wild like him at seventeen
When he would drink without pause, day into night
Stewing in his anger.
“Don’t just lecture them,” he’d tell the elders.
“Show them a bit of kindness, understand their situation.”
His lawyer prods him:
“Tell them how you convinced eleven hundred men
to sign a peace treaty
men whose violence against each other
had been impossible to stop.”
“Prisoners trust me,” he says simply.
For he had learned somehow
To be fair
He’d even coached prison basketball
“And if there’s any place where fairness is essential . . .”
He smiles faintly, shifts his manacles, takes a sip of water.
His lawyer, her voice tightening,
asks him to recall his crime.
He takes a breath.
“One night,” he says
“I went with older boys to rob someone
For no reason
We didn’t need the money
I was high on booze and weed
Been drinking since early morning
My dad had left us; mom worked all hours,
I was on my own a lot
Though that’s no reason to do a crime.”
The guy they chose had nothing in his wallet
Disgusted, they tossed it aside
Muttered a few empty threats
And stood there not knowing what to do
Seeing his chance
The guy took off into the night
Both teens drew guns
Shot in his direction
Prisoner Number 63892119
Has done with diligence and honor
Any job the wardens ask.
Has mopped blood off floors and walls
Of solitary holding pens
Where prisoners have cut themselves
Driven mad by isolation.
He’s learned to calm those men
Who’d yell out
As they recognized signs of impending self-destruction
“I can’t take it, man, I’m gonna do something, I swear.”
“Take it easy,” he tells them, “You’ll get through this.”
He’s taken up collections for schoolchildren
Who need backpacks and pencils
Pop-Tarts, gym shoes
Bus fare, notebooks
White shirts for choir.
He’s asked men who earn a dollar thirty-nine a day
To help kids starting out with nothing.
“We’ve done bad things all our lives,” he tells the hardened cons.
“Now it’s time to do good.”
His own grandma was raped and murdered,
He tells us at the prompting of his lawyer.
His grandma, who loved him as a child
when no one else would take him in.
A harmless old lady
Violated in a filthy corridor
Of a senior citizen high-rise
So I can understand, he says, what it is to be a victim—
Though soon after he heard the news
He’d found himself in city jail
With a guy who boasted of his grandma’s murder.
Yet in his situation, he says,
He could do nothing.
In a way
It was just another passage he was doomed to take
On his way to prison hell.
One night he tried to write a letter
to the mother of his victim
Five times he tried; five times he tore it up.
“How does a person write such a letter?” he asks.
Overcome, he falls silent, mops his face
Tries to speak, fails, his voice high with tears.
But later, we learn
That he expressed his sorrow in a poem
Which was published in an academic journal
Underwritten by the university.
The prosecutor for the State
his blue serge suit
creased over the bulk of his back, asks
“Does writing poems give you pleasure?”
As if the slightest benefit to himself
Would prove he is a sociopath
Incapable of empathy.
The prosecutor points to all the lies the prisoner told
at the station, the night of his crime
still high on weed and drink and terror.
Childishly, he gave a false name
And said he never had a gun
And that he never done nothin’ to nobody.
The prosecutor slowly reads his false statement to the judge
Emphasizing, ever so insidiously, the ethnic cast to his teenage grammar
His lawyer stands:
“Will you please tell the court when you gave up violence?”
His last ticket, he says
Was for fighting.
“What were the circumstances?” his lawyer asks
An older man was set to rape a young one in the shower
He didn’t agree with that.
“So now we wait,” his lawyer tells us in the hall.
It’s kind of complicated
The new decision will replace the old one
It will be a term of years
Not a new life sentence
Or life without parole
Though there’s not much precedent
For how a judge should sentence
A man who’s already served 22 years
And even then, she says,
The parole board can take its own sweet time
Deciding when to bring a prisoner up for review.
His good behavior, “good time,” in prison-speak
Is in his favor.
But it’s hard to say
Whether this man
Or any other like him
Will ever be free.
Prison is its own country
With its culture, laws, traditions,
And myths of human nature.
Once trapped there
Boys grow up
Where nothing promotes maturity
Most inmates wear down to nubs
Or die in their own congealing blood
Except those few
Who, touched by grace,
Into exceptional men.