One afternoon not long after I had first been locked up I was sitting in the chow hall with a group of guys. I didn’t know any of them yet. One of them who I hadn’t known at the time but later became a friend said, “Man, I heard there’s a guy in our block done killed 6 people!” Someone else asked who it was, and then they began a conversation pondering all of the possibilities.
I cleared my throat and confessed quietly, “It was me. It was a drinking and driving accident…” After some discussion they had decided that since it was an accident, and because I “owned” it, they could forgive me for it. Then I listened to all of the ensuing advice on the need to forgive myself, which people inevitably have seemed to offer over the years.
I have a friend, “Dino” who has been locked up since 1960. Whenever people start talking about the latest, most horrific news story of the day, and how the offender “Needs to be killed,” or how someone isn’t worthy of our sympathy or forgiveness, I think of Dino. Dino didn’t save my life or anything like that, but he taught me one of the most valuable lessons that I learned in those days. He taught me that I could live with who I was, who I had become. I might not ever be happy again, but I could learn to be content. Most importantly, I could be of use.
I spent endless hours walking the yard with Dino, listening to his stories.
Dino had a scar that went all the way around his neck. It was a knife scar from where another inmate had tried to cut Dino’s head off once. One time a warden had actually put a hit out on Dino, tried to have him killed by another inmate. Dino’s life has been far from easy. He has been locked up continuously for 54 years. He had been on death row, and had even been looking forward to the gas chamber in his early years, but North Carolina went through a brief period of letting people off of death row. Dino’s mother had begged him to try to get back to court to get his sentence changed to life in prison for her sake. He had, and had won; she passed away a few years later leaving Dino alone. Very, very alone.
He had also been instrumental in helping to create the prison rehabilitation program for alcohol and drugs. Dino had gotten a Master’s degree in psychology while incarcerated, had paid for it with help from his family. (He wouldn’t be allowed to do this anymore.) He had intended to pursue a PhD, but the prison had refused to let him. He worked an entire career and then some, as a peer counselor within the prison system, never hoping to be released, just hoping to help the guys who were.
His crime was every bit horrific as anything I have ever heard. I won’t share the details; they aren’t necessary-there was a rape, there was a murder, there was a child. It still hurts me knowing that he was capable of this at one time. It still hurts him too. I also won’t go into the details of his childhood. You don’t need to know them, because whenever a crime like this exists; we already know what the person’s childhood was like. People who grow up in healthy, well-adjusted homes don’t do these things. But somehow we expect the people who do, broken people, to have the capacity to make rational, well-adjusted decisions.
And so we punish them for having been broken.
I still write to Dino occasionally, and he still writes me. His health is failing. He’s being given inadequate care. He’s tired, and frankly, I don’t think he wants to go on living. He complains of the gangs, the noise, the lack of respect. Recently they had to take him to a hospital and so they put him in shackles- there is no experience quite like that. Then they chained him to the hospital bed.
But out on the yard together, Dino taught me about acceptance, and resignation. He taught me how to stay sober, and how to enjoy my sobriety. He gave me great gifts.
Dino doesn’t want out. I asked him that, but he says it’s been too long; he wouldn’t be able to survive. And he’s right.
So when I hear about the latest horror story to hit the news (believe me there is always another one) and I am trying to comprehend how someone could do that, and I’m filled with anger, rage, and disgust, where I go is back to the prison yard for a walk in the lingering shadows, to find understanding, and forgiveness, and compassion; because in the end I really believe that every single person has worth, and that no one action can define us.
Dino, who had once been a nightmare of a man, is gentle, quiet, a little sad, and wants little else in life but to be of use. We all could use a little more forgiveness, a little more compassion…a little more love.