I used to teach this class at the federal prison in Beckley. Now I don’t know why I wanted to do it, but for some reason I did. I remember that first day when I called up education from the phone at the main desk. I was so nervous and about fifteen minutes later, the prison guard, Kincaid came walking towards me, all sawed off and with these big linebacker arms. He searched me and had me take off my shoes and put them back on.
And then he said: “My name’s Kincaid and I’ll give you a piece of advice--you can’t trust anybody in here.”
And so he took my keys and left them at control desk saying: “We keep your car keys so if there is ever a hostage situation, they can’t put a gun to your head and have you drive off the premises.”
And so then he took me inside the prison and it took 15 minutes just to go through 6 or 7 locked doors, which crashed like cars when they opened and closed.
And as we walked deeper inside, he reminded me, “Now again if there’s ever a riot and you’re trapped in the room, and you see SWAT coming, just flop to the ground cause they’ll come in spraying.”
And then sometimes he told me that guys will get in fights just so they can go to solitary. And if I noticed anything in my class to let him know.
He said, “I guess they pick up some morphine or heroin along the way and they like going to solitary so they can shove it up their ass and enjoy it in privacy.”
And so I finally just stood there thinking: “O shit—this ain’t no joke.”
I was already paranoid from a report I read the week before on the Columbian drug cartels sending hit lists through written code. And I was worried the guys would put these hidden messages in their essays ordering the death of someone on the outside. I imagined drug cartel guys breaking into my office to steal the essays and get the codes.
But then I stopped thinking because Kincaid gave me a radio.
He pointed to a red button on the top of it and said: “Now if anyone’s ever attacking you—just hit this red button and it’ll probably save your life.”
But then he just laughed and said: “Unfortunately this one’s broken—so the red button doesn’t work, but I’ll try to get one for ya next week. So if anybody tries to kill ya this week—we’re screwed.”
And then we both just laughed.
And we started walking.
We walked through a locked door and then another and then another.
But once I got inside the prison’s education department, which only consisted of about 100 bibles dropped off by Gideons—everything was fine.
I did make the mistake of introducing myself to the guys as Scott. So when Kincaid walked by the room and heard them calling me this, he knocked on the glass and stuck his head inside the door shouting like an asshole cop, “Hey guys you call him Mr. McClanahan or Professor McClanahan.”
I apologized, and then he left, but not before making one of the prisoners remove a fro pick from their hair.
I heard one of the guys saying: “Damn that guys wound about two wounds too tight.” And then another guy said: “You have to be a sick motherfucker to make the choice to come inside a prison.”
And then someone else said: “At least he gets paid to be here—about 65,000 dollars from what I hear.”
And then another guy said: “Yeah 65,000 dollars of hell.”
And then I reminded them I was choosing to be here and I was only a volunteer from a local community college.
And everybody laughed—like that was the sickest joke of all.
So I calmed everybody down and started taking roll by the list of prisoners provided by the prison. I read the list of students on my list of inmates (no first names), but just inmate 1118046 D. Johnson.
Inmate 1190647 E. Johnson.
Inmate 1117843. T. Johnson.
And so I tried to make a joke, saying: “Man the world’s been rough on you Johnson boys this year.”
And so I had them go around and introduce themselves—inmate 118046 D. Johnson. “Man I just want to get my life together. I’ve made some mistakes and I just wanna get out and become a better member of society.”
Inmate 119847 E.Johnson. “Man I just want to get my life together. I’ve made some mistakes and I just want to get out and become a better member of society.”
Inmate 1117843. “Man I just want to get”…you get the point.
And it was like this story after story until all the way down at the end of the list was inmate 117486 R. Rodriguez.
And I knew before he even spoke—he was different.
He was different because there was laughter and life inside his eyes.
And he said: “Man you’re all a bunch of fools.”
And then he said: “When I get out I just want to get me some motherfucking ho’s and some motherfucking weed. And I’m not gonna do anything except sit around all day and smoke weed and fuck pussy.”
And so everybody laughed and then one of em said: “You going back to selling?”
And Rodriguez said: “Hell yes. I’ll know how much I can carry on me without it being a felony now.”
And so everybody laughed some more. And I knew he was different alright.
I knew he was different because he was telling the truth.
I knew he was different that next week after I had them read an essay by George Orwell called, “Shooting an Elephant.”
I asked whether or not Orwell was right in shooting the elephant.
And one of the guys named Rupert, who was this big, muscular, skinhead guy with tattoos on his face said: “ I think that Orwell’s nothing but a punk ass bitch. He reminds me of some of them snitch bitches around here. I’ve been in gladiator schools and he wouldn’t last in gladiator schools.”
But by then Rodriguez just smiled at me and he started to calm Rupert down.
And then Rodriguez smiled some more and started talking about the difference between free will and whether we’re conditioned to behave in a certain way. He talked about how we really don’t know one another—especially ourselves. He talked about how Orwell’s decision was made decades before. It was his decision but he was conditioned to make a decision.
And so I said: “But isn’t that a contradiction?”
And he just smiled and said: “Exactly. That’s prison. Most people live their lives in absolutes, but not us.”
And then he quoted, “Do I contradict myself, very well then I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.”
And then, later on, he talked about how his mother crossed rivers to sneak into this country from Mexico—and how he was the child of a black father and a mexican mother. He talked about how his father was murdered before he was born and how he grew up watching his mother smoke crack. And then he said how this had to have affected the decision he later made on the streets. And then one of the guys asked him if his mother was still alive. And he said—he didn’t know. But he was counting the days until he got out of here. He only had 5 years left. And he was going to try and find her when he got out and take care of her. And even though he had been making fun of this just a few minutes before—he was so sincere about it—and everyone grew quiet.
And so over the next couple of months I got to know the guys better and I kept thinking about Rodriguez. I kept thinking—I can’t believe this guy. I mean most of these prison guys were guys just wanting to get back in here even after they got out. Most of them had the minds of accountants. They were like most of us on the outside—the next score, moving to Amsterdam, that sort of thinking. But here was someone who was different. Here was someone whose mind went sideways instead of up and down.
And so over the next couple of classes I listened to Rodriguez quote: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
And then one night he made the argument that at the core of every technological innovation was a new mind altering chemical of some kind—whether it be Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Christian, or silicone valley.
And then I read one of his essays about finding his mother—about his hope of finding her after he got out in five years.
And so one night walking out of the prison yard after lockdown, the prison guard Kincaid looked over at me and said: “You don’t let them niggers write in Ebonics just like they speak do you?”
And I was shocked hearing it.
I didn’t know what to say.
So I just said: “Well writing is more than spelling.”
And then he said: “Yeah, well these guys are smart alright. But you can’t trust any of em. These guys all made their choices, but they just made bad choices.”
But going home that night I wanted to tell him about Rodriguez.
I wanted to tell him about Rodriguez and how beautiful he wrote.
I wanted to tell him how wrong he was.
I wanted to tell him about Rodriguez’s murdered father.
And I wanted to tell him about Rodriguez’s mother and how he didn’t know where she was—but Rodriguez was counting the days until his release.
It wasn’t a long time when you really thought about it.
And he was going to try and find her.
But what did it matter?
I figured it was best to encourage Rodriguez because there were just a couple of weeks left of class anyway. And so one night I listened to him joke with me about it being my birthday and what kind of crazy guy chooses to spend their birthday in prison.
And then he said: “Well we should get a stripper for you.”
And so I asked: “I don’t know about you Rodriguez but it doesn’t look like to me you have much access to women in here. I don’t know what I’d end up with.”
And then he just laughed and said: “O hell McClanahan—you just close your eyes and pretend and it’s all the same. I swear to you it’s better than on the outside because it all happens between the ears. It all happens in the mind.”
And so one night, the day before the last class, I read his essay about waiting for his transfer from Oklahoma City to Beckley FCI 3 years before. And it was this story about how his cell mate was waiting on a supreme court decision which could knock up to three years off his sentence. And his cellmate knew it wasn’t going to happen. He knew the conservative court would find against his side, but he waited anyway. So his friend was waiting and Rodriguez was waiting too.
And I sat in my living room and I told my wife: “I feel like I need to say something to this guy. I know it sounds stupid but I feel like I need to say something.”
I felt like I needed to encourage him somehow—so that when he got out in a couple of years—he really could do this. I needed to tell him when he got out I would help him in any way I could—write to anyone he needed me too.
And so I went back on the final night of our class and I gave back the essays. I told them it seemed like just a couple of days ago, but three months had already passed. And I shook all of their hands and told them good luck. And they shook my hand and told me good luck. And just as they were leaving, I stopped Rodriguez and I told him how great his essays were, and how he could do this.
And I told him how much his stories had meant to me.
And I told him he really could find his mother if he wanted too.
It was only 5 years.
And Rodriguez just looked at me like he couldn’t believe what I was saying.
He looked at me like I was messing with him.
And then he said: “O I’m not getting out of here McClanahan. I’m a fucking lifer—murder one. I just made all of that shit up for you to have something to talk about in this stupid class.”
I didn’t know what to say.
And then he went out into the yard and started talking to a couple of guys and they started laughing too.
It was stupid, wasn’t it?
And I looked at Rodriguez’s face and I didn’t want it to be true. And it was like no matter how long he tried he was never going to be able to teach me anything.
So I thought about his mother—gone.
I thought about his murdered father—gone.
I thought about his hope and his stories—all gone.
And so later that night, waiting for Kincaid to walk me out, Kincaid looked out of the barred glass of education and pointed to Rodriguez who was standing beneath a flickering light, all alone, smoking a cigarette.
Kincaid, the prison guard, said: “You see that guy there. That guys smarter than shit—probably the smartest fucking guy in here. He goes around like a fucking gang banger, but the truth is, he’s just a spoiled ass rich kid from the suburbs. Look—doesn’t even have any tats on him. From what I hear he ended up killing somebody.”
And so I just stood there looking at Rodriguez and I thought about waiting and loving mothers and crossing far away rivers.
And then I heard Kincaid say: “You can’t trust any of these guys. Everybody has a choice in this life. You remember what I told you the first day we met.”
And it was like Kincaid wasn’t even talking to me anymore, but was repeating a mantra of some kind, known only to him.
And I looked at Rodriguez and wondered who he killed: a girlfriend, a dealer, or maybe even someone else?
And so that night after lockdown Kincaid gathered up his radio and his prison keys and we made small talk. And then he took out a picture of this little girl and showed it to me. It was a picture of Kincaid’s little girl about two years old with blonde hair, and she was wearing a hat that had a little cartoon kitten on it. And so Kincaid put it back into his pocket and his face shined so full of love.
And so I went home that night feeling like I was going to be sick.
I listened in my head as Kindcaid’s words twirled about how proud he was and how he loved little girl.
And then I thought about her face.
And maybe he was right. We all make choices in this world and that was the scary part. Kincaids little girl was so far away from this place. Kincaid’s little girl was so far away from the talk of lockdowns, TB outbreaks, prison riots, drug convictions, and lying men.
So I was surprised a year or two later, after I stopped teaching a class at the federal prison because it was just too much. I just awoke one morning and there was snow on the ground. And so I turned on the television and saw a picture of a little girl on the local television newscast. And there was something about the picture of this little girl that looked familiar. She was about 2 years old and she had blonde hair and was wearing this little hat with a Hello Kitty on it. And I felt like I knew this girl. And then I saw a man being escorted into court wearing an orange jumpsuit and he looked familiar too. And then I saw who it was. I saw who it was before the reporter even said his name: “Kincaid.” And he worked as a prison guard for the past ten years at the federal prison in Beckley.
Then the reporter said Kincaid was being arraigned that morning for the murder of his 3 year old daughter who was found beaten to death the day before.
Now it was the little girl in the picture—gone.
And so I just sat there watching the television and I saw Kincaid’s sad and shocked face. And I just thought back to the class and I heard Rodriuguez saying: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
And so I whispered to myself: “Nothing human is alien to me. Nothing human is alien to me.”
That was the scary part.
And so I sat and wondered if this is the way the world works. I knew you couldn’t trust anyone, not even yourself. And I wondered what murder was waiting inside of me to commit.
And so now I lay me down to sleep and sometimes I dream this strange dream. I dream that we’re all back at the federal prison except we’re outside the prison walls now. And we’re all there, all the people I’ve ever known and all the people in the world are there. And you’re there too. And we’re all cold and scared and Kincaid and Rodriguez are there as well. And they’re arguing over this life and whether our actions are guided by chance or free will. And no one can figure it out. No one can figure it out who the prisoners are and who the guards are even, and who even the guilty are. And so we’re all standing outside the prison walls and we’re all arguing over this. And it’s night. And there’s lightning—a black and white night.
And we’re all fighting.
We’re all fighting to get back inside.