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   The horn sounds before dawn when you're paroled, as it does every morning. You stand at the bars for prisoner count and when the hundred bolts on your block fire back you step out of your cell and walk in silent two-by-two down a concrete corridor to the same breakfast you've eaten for the last year, two years, twenty years, however long you've been resident. But it's not like any other morning, you see that on the face of every inmate you meet. You don't belong anymore. You're not one of them. You're out. Some touch you for luck when the officers aren't watching. Some whisper, See you back here soon, bitch.

The previous day you reported to work detail. On parole day, they shunt you aside with one or two others getting out the same time. You settle your account at the canteen. They give you a box with the clothes you wore into the joint or something your family - if you have any - brought for you to wear on the day of your release. Watched by the officers you remove the prison overalls and put on your street clothes. You sign papers. Even five years out of style you start to feel the blood flow through your veins. If you haven't been rehabilitated to walking death, you feel a little like you again. Over a scarred counter they hand out whatever money you saved working at twenty-five cents an hour. You sign more papers. They fingerprint you one last time and check your prints against the prints on file to make sure they're releasing the right inmate. At every step in the process you stop before steel bars and wait for the buzz and thunk of the lock springing back. It's a sound you know like your own cough in the night. Last of all they cut the prisoner identification number from your wrist. The number is embedded in a thin plastic bracelet and it goes into a file reserved for your return. Through the last set of steel bars and down sunlit stairs an exit sign flickers green above an open door.
You're out.

I was the first inmate released from California Institute for Women that morning. The San Gabriel mountains rimmed the northern horizon, snow-dusted peaks glinting white and gold under a sun that rolled like a bright yellow marble up the blue bowl of winter sky. Across the road Bandini Mountain steamed under the first rays of sun. Though I hadn't seen it for five years, I hadn't forgotten the sight or smell. No inmate could. Six days a week, blue overalled workers shoveled its perpetually expanding base into a fertilizer factory. Bandini Mountain measured over a mile in length and rose so high snow might have capped the peak if not for the heat generated by the horse, cow and human feces that formed its mass. The stench penetrated concrete, steel and the deepest dreams. Behind the razor wire, everything smelled like shit: the air, the food, the inmates, the officers - even the warden, a well meaning soul imprisoned as much as anyone by the smell, could never completely wash the odor of excrement from her hair.

The Sergeant at Arms opened the rear door of the police cruiserthat was to take me to the bus stationtwelve miles down the road. I crawled into the caged compartment and shut the door behind me. I didn't fool myself into thinking I was free. The wire mesh that screened me from the driver was just another set of bars. Nobody released on parole is free. The chain might be longer but the State still owned me. The Sergeant at Arms started the engine and accelerated past Bandini Mountain. I moved my lips in a voiceless goodbye to five years of doing the same thing every day the same way. Five years of a concrete and steel room with a squat toilet in the corner. Five years of never being alone, not to shower, to urinate, or defecate. Five years of lock-ups and head-counts six times a day. Five years of being watched everywhere, always. Five years of no dogs, no cats, no birds, no children, no men. Five years of no touching. Five years of imposed silences and arbitrary punishments. Five years of a flashlight beamed up my anus and vagina. Five years of humiliation, five years of fear. Fear of solitary, fear of emptiness, fear of time. Five years leaking into my veins like formaldehyde to a walking corpse.

I ceased being the responsibility of the California Institute for Women the moment my foot hit the bottom step of the Greyhound bus. The driver took a long look at me as I leaped on board. He'd been driving a bus so long his butt sagged over the edges of the seat.

He said, "Welcome back to the free world, honey."

* * *

   I grew up watching the fights on television. My dad was a bigfight fan. He'd sit me down next to him on the couch and between rounds send me into the kitchen for beer. My favorite part was the introduction, when the referee explains legal versus illegal types of mayhem while the two fighters try to take each other down with bad ass eyes. That was the stare my parole officer gave me when I walked into her office. She looked my age plus five years, a thin-lipped blonde with chisel-marks around the eyes. Muscle flexed at the corners of her jaw and corded down her neck. Her body had the cut look of sculpted stone. She could have cracked walnuts between the biceps and forearms showing below the sleeves of her white cotton blouse. Nothing about the woman appeared soft. Even her wash and wear hairstyle had a muscular curl to it. We were in the same weight class and I was in the best shape of my life but it was no contest. My jail face was still on. Don't talk back. Don't smile. Don't grimace. Don't stare someone down who can stick you in the hole or give you hard time.

"So which one are you going to be, Miss Baker?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Are you a loser?" Her blue steel glance made one smooth incision from my pelvis to forehead. "Or someone who can straighten out her life?"

She wanted me to think about that one. The terms of my parole required me to check in with a parole officer upon release. She was the hundred and forty pound ball at the end of my chain. I didn't worry about going back to the criminal life because I'd never been in it. Before my arrest I'd photographed babies for a living. I wore knee-length white skirts and pink sweaters and painted my nails to match. I never did drugs or broke the law. I was a good girl. Then everything went wrong and I discovered my goodness was a facade carefully constructed over something so dark and twisted it frightened people.

I said, "Only time on the outside can judge that."

She dipped her shoulder, yanked back a drawer and flipped a thin manila file onto the desktop. "Just about everybody who comes to this office swears they're going to stay clean and the ones who swear the loudest are usually the first to fall." She flicked through the file page by page, spending half a minute on one, a few seconds on the next. "You just might be the rare parolee with a healthy attitude. Then again, you might be clever at conning people." She stuck me with an inquisitor's smile and went, "Hmmmm?"