"I don't believe people are evil. It is either circumstance, or they don't know what they are doing is wrong."|
Alright, some feelings of mine that have been brought up through the Showing Your Face in Public thread by billgerat. And just a small bit of a story that has shaped my thinking on the subject considerably. There are very few things in this world that I am passionate about. Hell, there are very few things that I even have definite opinions on. But the way that society treats its criminals is one of them.
The discussion that took place in that thread consisted of law enforcement scanning faces and checking those scans against a massive database of criminal records to identify which people had a criminal record. Presumably, though the article that was being discussed didn’t say so exactly, the people with criminal records would be the ones who would get hassled and watched out for, regardless of whether or not they are doing anything wrong.
Wonderaz asked me if I have been on the receiving end of never having done anything wrong but fitting the profile. I have not. I look, for the most part, like a coddled middle class white boy, which I suppose I am.
But I have seen the other side of the coin as well.
In case some of you didn't know, I was in rehab for cocaine addiction a few years back (actually, there were a lot of reasons, most of them having nothing to do with drug addiction, fairly complicated, but I was there in any case). It was actually a really great experience, kind of like summer camp in a strange way. I am sure one of these days I’ll go more in depth about it. I met some of the most interesting characters I have ever seen in there, but that isn’t the point of this story.
After my 28 days, I chose to move into what is known as an Oxford House. Basically, these are houses run and populated by other recovering addicts. There is a president, vice president, secretary, weekly meetings, all that. And everybody has to do chores, pay rent, etc. Like a fraternity, basically. Pretty cheap, certainly rules (obviously the first being no booze or drugs, no being drunk or high), kind of run down, but a good place to be if you needed to be there. The guys were very supportive of one another. We hung out together; we went to NA and AA meetings together. In any case, a pretty nice way of re-entering society via a semi-vacuum. You are out and about in society, but not thrown straight from rehab back into the mainstream. Though to tell you the truth, I was there for the most part to appease uptight family members and because it was really fucking cheap. But that’s not really the point either (again, I’ll save all that for another day).
There were about 8 of these houses in Topeka, KS. All were full to capacity except one. The only one I could get into was full of ex-cons (whereas many others are full of preppy white kids who acquired a meth habit). Real hard cases trying to go straight and better themselves.
In any case, I moved in. There were about 10 guys in this big house. 9 of them were ex-crack and meth heads with felony records. Ages ranged from 18 to 45.
What I saw in my 4 months living there churned my stomach.
First of all, everybody who moves into these houses, at least as far as I could see, had every intention of staying sober. Despite that, the turnover rate was still pretty high. In my 4 months there the house cycled through maybe 25 guys, the maximum at any given time was 12. I was pretty much a loner; stayed to myself most of the time. Simply put, I couldn’t relate to most of them. They all had been doing really hard drugs for many years, all had Parole Officers and records a mile long. I was just a preppy white kid who drank too much, did recreational drugs, dropped out of school, and whose family thought he should be put into rehab. What the fuck did I know about hitting bottom?
But in any case, about two months into my stay there, I befriended a guy name of Jason. Jason was 27 but looked 16, and had been in prison since the age of 19. He had an almost identical background as myself, save for the fact that his father was rich. Just to look at him or talk to him, you would NEVER be able to guess at his history. He was a really well spoken, handsome, and intelligent fellow (save for the heavy Missouri accent; think Boys Don’t Cry). He was well dressed, clean shaven, and a helluva nice guy.
So we started to talk, we got along great. We became pretty much inseperable. In any case, as I am an inquisitive person by nature I kept asking him about his life. How he had gotten to where he was.
His story is a fascinating one to me.
Growing up he had everything he wanted except a happy childhood. His father had been for many years an abusive alcoholic, despite owning a chain of hotels (in fact, during this period, Jason often attended meetings with me that his father was chairing. They rarely spoke). Mother he had never known. Around the age of 14 or 15 Jason, always having been an impulsive and rebellious kid, starting doing drugs with his friends. Same old story. First this, then that, then more of this, you know the drill, and you probably know the type. By the age of 16 he had become a pretty hard case. Was getting heavy into “bad” drugs (drugs that are in no way EVER “recreational”. Things like crack and heroin and meth and whatnot). Started shoplifting. Got running with the bad crowds. Got deeper and deeper in.
By the time he was 18, he had dropped out of school and had his fingers into every pie you could think of. A crackhead by then, he was robbing stores at gunpoint, stealing cars, burglarizing homes, shoplifting, scamming, was a fence for awhile, whatever he could do to score. When I tell you this guy is a very sharp fellow, I mean it. Some of his dealings and connivings and schemes that he told me about are pretty fucking brilliant. But it is hard to keep a sharp wit for long with that kind of habit. Eventually, even the smartest minds just become raving lunatics under those conditions. Jason was no exception. Whereas at first he was creating elaborate and foolproof scams, he was by this point simply walking into check cashing places with a shotgun.
At one point, for reasons known not even to him, he and a few buddies went on a multi-state crime spree. He would rob mostly check cashing joints, and his MO is that he would superglue the clerks' hands to the counters after he got what he needed. He was fairly infamous, mostly for that reason (some of the newspaper clipping he showed me were actually pretty funny. Nothing like seeing a SWAT team trying to get a dude’s palms off a countertop). Also, this whole time he was a crackhead of the highest degree and order, as were the people he was rolling with. He was also a wanted felon in 3 states.
In any case, he did this all the way to Arizona (on his way to Mexico) before he got nabbed. Got the fuck beat out of him by the cops that finally caught him (they broke 14 bones). Got the third degree in interrogations. Refused to roll over on the guys he was with, which meant they were going to try and throw the book at him. They finally charged him with everything from armed robbery and assault to weapons charges and driving without a license. Sentenced to 10 years, which was actually a pretty light sentence all things considered (especially considering all the other shit he had done that he was never caught for). Jason himself admits the only reason he got that light a sentence was due to having a really fucking good attorney (the last thing his father did for him before disowning him).
In his words: "Man, when you're 19 and you get 10 years, that's like a life sentence.”
He was a real rowdy guy in prison. Kind of like what Jyates said about the lifers, he didn’t give a fuck anymore. Showed me his demerits or whatever the fuck they call them; basically the write-ups they do when you start shit in prison. Told me the stories behind them. Starting riots, refusing to work, beating people up, getting high, spitting in a guard’s face (which he claims was the biggest mistake he ever made in prison). All that shit. He was by no means a model prisoner. And, he joined the Aryan Nation for awhile, mostly for protection (he claims). You should see the tattoos he had. He looked perfectly normal until he shaved his head and took off his shirt, and then he looked like Ed Norton in American History X. Spent half of his sentence in Arizona and then was moved to finish it out in a prison in Kansas.
And like Norton, about 3/4s of the way through his sentence, he just started getting fed up with everything. It wasn’t what he wanted anymore. For about a month the crack supplies in prison dried up towards the end of the sentence, and a bit of the haze finally lifted. He just didn’t want to do it anymore. He was done.
At the age of 27 he was released and voluntarily went straight into a 9 month rehab program for cons (if you think you can’t continue a drug habit in prison, you are an idiot). He wanted to go straight. He wanted to be in control again. And then when he wasn't able to stay in rehab any longer he moved into the Oxford House.
It was there that I entered his life, and he entered mine.
We did the deal together. We became really great friends. What I saw when I met him was not a con. I saw an honestly good man who had just never done much of anything right. But he was trying like hell to change all that. We did the deal together. He went to a NA or AA meeting a day. Went to the AA social functions (they have dances and whatnot every once in awhile.
And right off the bat he tried his damndest to re-enter society.
Society fought back.
His first handicap was with his PO. Twice a week he had to go see his PO (15 miles away and he had no car). If he was 15 minutes late, a warrant was issued for his arrest. He had to pee in a cup. If anything showed up, even booze, he would be sent back. The PO wanted nothing more then to throw Jason back in, and made that abundantly clear (to both of us, I was often the one driving Jason to these appointments).
Then he tried to get a job.
One of the tenants of the 12 step programs is to try to be the best person you can be. That includes being honest. And so, every application, when he was asked if he had ever been convicted of a felony, he answered honestly. Because of that, nobody would hire him. Even McDonalds turned him down. More then a few places would simply never return his calls, doing everything they could to avoid them. One place even asked Jason, after reading over his application, to kindly leave the store and never come back.
I was watching a segment on 20/20 the other day, that implicitly expressed outrage that it is not required by law for everybody to do extensive background checks on job applicants. They didn’t say so, but the implication was that anybody who came up with felonies should not be allowed a job. They gave anecdotal accounts of carpet cleaners who ended up raping the homeowners, or crazed postal workers, or whatever. Not mentioning the thousands of other cons who have been honest law abiding citizens ever since they got out. In any case, were a majority of Americans polled, and if they had their way, I imagine there would be nothing but lifers in the American prison system. We like to think that we want them to re-enter society, but when it comes to having and ex-con live in your neighborhood or building, or having them prepare your food or sell you shoes, people get a little hypocritical.
He applied for maybe a hundred jobs. Got turned down for all.
The only way he could make any money was with day labor. For those who have never done it, it is probably the shittiest work that any man could do. Basically, at about 330 AM all the homeless people, illegal immigrants, crack heads, and ex-cons get in a line (you have to get a good place in line or the jobs run out. Then, around 5 AM, they open the doors and start handing out jobs auction style. They then stick you in a van, ship you off to put together cardboard boxes for 10 hours, bring you back, and hand you 40 bucks or so. Then, the winos and immigrants and whatever would go across the liquor store to spend their money, and Jason would walk the 2 miles home to plop it down for rent.
We also had a few run ins with the cops. Generally, what happens if you come home drunk to an Oxford house and refuse to leave is that we call the cops on you. Jason is a strong guy and has a great sense of responsibility, so he was often the one that tried to handle these situations. When he did, the cops would often start hassling him along with the drunk flatmate. On several occasions, after checking Jason’s ID (for no good reason), they searched him and roughed him up a bit. A few times he was even taken to the station for questioning, and then released and told to walk home. I got pulled over once, and the way the cops treated him versus me once they checked both our IDs was absolutely sickening. And I was the one who was driving.
His family no longer talked to him. His old straight friends didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He tried becoming close to his few old drug buddies who had since sobered up, but each one of them kept dropping back into it and disappearing. The only people who wanted to have anything to do with him, besides myself, were his old drug and crime buddies, and they wouldn’t leave him the fuck alone. They were always calling or showing up stoned, and he always had to turn them away and go back to playing chess on my computer. They’d roll up in their nice cars, and he’d have to turn them away and go to Day Labor.
Finally, in a great stroke of luck, he landed a job at a Telemarketing place. A real shithole, but an honest way to earn a living. Actually, he and I both started off there. We went through two weeks of training, and then they start laying people off. The new ones got the axe first. Back to Day Labor.
His life was shit. No two ways about it. There are even a helluva lot more things I could talk about here that I haven’t gotten into. But to be sure, this was not the life he envisioned. He was a second class citizen. He was the bottom of the fucking barrel as far as society was concerned. He had only the pretense of freedom. No friends, no family, no money, no job, no respect. And he was stone cold sober to enjoy it.
Some people may call this fair and just. Karma is a bitch, no? He brought it all on himself. Some people, even despite all those obstacles, still succeed. All those things. There is some truth to that, I suppose. But to me, that is nothing more then Double Jeopardy. He was paying for the same crime twice. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in my mind. People expect ex-criminals to keep committing crimes, and thus make it so they can do little else.
He so wanted to do the right thing.
But it all finally just overwhelmed him.
One weekend, I was off visiting somebody. Apparently one night, he snuck into another roommate’s room, grabbed his car keys, and took off.
They found the car about a week later, filled with stolen TVs and stereos, and some crack paraphernalia. Nobody has heard from Jason since.
And one of my deep dark secrets is this:
Had I have been there that night, I probably would have gone with him.
I think about him still from time to time. I only knew him maybe for two months, but I learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons through my talks with him. He was at his heart a truly decent and strong man. I know this.
Society is worse for his absence. And society should shoulder a large amount of blame for it.
They say you can judge a society by the nature of its prisons.
What about the prisons that extend past concrete walls and steel bars?
Shortly before he left, Jason told me something I remember still.
“Man. I feel like I’ve been on autopilot my whole life. And it feels like somebody else is programming it.”
I’ll miss ya, Jason.
Incidentally, I wrote about 3/4s of a screenplay based mostly on my talks with him and his old scams, crime sprees, and fuck-ups. Here is an excerpt. Forgive its klunkiness. Screenwriting is a difficult format to master. And even more difficult to transfer to HTML.
INT. PICK UP TRUCK – DAY
You ever try to go straight?
Sure I did, right before you met me. I had been out of prison and sober for a year.
MONTAGES ## VARIOUS
MONTAGE: Showing Jason doing the things he is speaking of in the following passage. The dialogue is narrating the montage.
First image is of a bunch of mean looking black guys sitting around watching boxing, with Jason sitting in a corner.
I got out and found a place to stay with other ex-cons. It was a real shithole, and we all fucking hated each other but it was the only place I could afford and the only place that would let me live there after doing a credit and background check.
Now it is a series of shots of Jason in job interviews, being turned down.
I tried to get a job, but nobody wants to hire an ex-con with
armed robbery on his sheet.
A series of images of Jason in a waiting room, Jason being taken down a hall, Jason talking with a mean looking guy, Jason pissing in a cup, Jason leaving.
I couldn’t leave the state, I had to check in with my P.O. once a week, piss in a cup. If they would have found traces of anything, even weed, they would have locked me up again for a year.
Images of Jason standing outside a shitty looking building before sunrise. All sorts of horrible looking bums and ex-cons are milling about in line.
Then image of a large room, looking almost like an auction, with some ladies behind a desk handing out jobs and calling things out.
Then image of Jason stuffed in a minivan with a dozen other people, all very crowded.
Then image of Jason putting together cardboard boxes, getting his fingers cut, etc.
Then image of Jason stuffed in a car again, the sun setting.
Then image of Jason getting 40 dollars in cash and staring at it in disbelief, holding it with his bleeding hands.
Since nobody would hire me I had to become a day laborer, with homeless people, the winos, the trash, the dregs. Every morning at 3:30 AM I would have to go to this shitty ass building to get a decent place in line. At 5 AM the people would hand out jobs, then they would stuff us in a car full of smelly ass bums and winos, drive us to some fucking factory, where we would spend all day putting boxes together or some shit. Terrible, monotonous ass work, all day long,
with like 5 minute breaks every two hours, and most days you would be lucky just to get any job at all. We’d work ten hours, get stuffed in the car going home, and they’d pay us maybe forty bucks. All the bums would go across the street and get their fix and I would have to walk a mile home and throw the money down as rent.
Image of Jason walking into a large room full of telemarketers. A bunch of black guys, a guy in a wheelchair, white trash as far as the eye can see, and young teenagers making out, all with headsets on.
Image of Jason in a chair, on the headset.
Image of Jason wincing, as we can hear a caller SCREAMING obscenities at Jason.
Image is repeated, with a different caller’s VOICE.
Image is repeated again, with a different caller’s VOICE.
Image of a crying lady making an announcment to the room, everyone staring at her.
Image of everyone exiting the building, throwing pop cans through the windows or whatever.
Image of Jason, hands in his pockets, with a sad look on his face, walking down the street.
After a few months of that day labor bullshit I finally got hired by a telemarketing company. That was almost worse. Everyone who worked there were almost as bad as the homeless people from day labor. I had to endure more verbal abuse than I would wish on my worst enemies, trying to sell shit to people that nobody needs or wants. Finally, after about a month of that, the bosses announced that cutbacks had been made, that all new employees were to be laid off and only the people who had been there over a year kept their jobs. Back to day labor.
Series of Jason looking frustrated, making phone calls.
I figured at least my family and old friends would have forgiven Me, but nope. Nobody would have anything to do with me. No One would even speak to me.
Series of Jason answering the door and various criminal looking types showing up.
The only people who would have anything to do with me were my old criminal buddies, and they wouldn’t leave me the fuck alone, always trying to get me to go back out there, to do the things again. Fuck, I didn’t have any friends, any money, any respect.
Series of Jason sneaking through a dark room, going to a bedside table, taking the car keys of a roommate, pushing the car out of the driveway and down the street a bit, then getting in the car and taking off.
Finally I just couldn’t take it anymore. Being in jail was better than that. So one night I stole a roommate’s car, took off, anD Haven’t looked back since.
Shot of Jason re-uniting with the criminal buddies. Hugs and pats on the back all around. They pass him a pipe.
I just feel like I been on autopilot my whole life.