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,
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.
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
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
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?"