By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Fucking bitch. You mess with me
and I kill you.
You mine. At first I crunch up the paper,
the note Jesse was careless enough
to leave around
after class. It sits beside me now,
loosens its fist,
unfolds by itself.
I keep crumpling it up just to see it breathe,
open up again.
Why do I keep coming back to this jail,
shouting, pounding my fist on the desk,
whistling, falling on the floor,
clutching my heart?
Look, if you’re not going to pay attention, okay.
But at least be honest,
get up from your seat,
and right in my face give me the fuck-you finger.
Finally a few students will look up,
even the couple in the corner
will stop fondling each other under the table.
Is this the only reason I’m here,
so Annette can brush against Bobby D.,
rub her leg against his?
This afternoon, when the women
couldn’t come to class,
some of the men actually stuck around,
spent the hour talking seriously —
about jailhouse romance,
trying to define it: how one needs a woman
to look for across the cafeteria,
beyond the fence at yard-out, somebody
to smuggle notes to, poems
copied off greeting cards, folded
into small squares and slipped
into cigarette packs.
It’s not the women’s fault,
Lorenzo said. But none of us talk straight
when they’re here, none of us.
We’ve got too many Cadillacs, T-birds,
driving around this room.
We’re too busy spending the thousands
we’ve got stashed
somewhere, just for the right woman.
Lorenzo loves robbing clothing stores,
gazing into their mirrors
so he can see himself holding a gun
on all those smartly dressed men,
imagining himself stepping into the glass,
the perfect getaway.
This afternoon I tried to get him to say more
about his wrestling scholarship,
why he gave it up when his father died,
along with his collection of math books,
his beloved calculus.
How come he won’t write about
when he was a boy?
But no, he’ll show me instead page after page
from a book he wants me to help him finish,
about out-of-the-body travel,
each journey of his recorded,
each waking cry witnessed by cellmates
date and time,
all the unexplained phenomena.
What am I to do with Michael?
He’s in detention again.
Today I had to unclench his hand
from his pillow,
those fingers too long, too powerful
for the skinny body that’s an embarrassment
to him, seventeen, the prison’s baby,
a boy whose soft features won’t blunt
for years probably, and then
much to his relief.
I rubbed his shoulders, lifted his face
so he couldn’t pretend to be
falling back asleep.
What do you fucking care.
I wanted to get hit.
I wanted some evidence to show the Warden,
a bruise the size of a hubcap.
And when Michael pulled down his shorts,
wasn’t he punishing me for my naivete,
my advice. He’d rehearsed in his cell
as I’d suggested, whispering the words
as if this time he might stay calm
and the guards would have to listen,
admire his logic. Fuck off.
I know you’re just trying to help,
but fuck off, won’t you?
He went on lacing and unlacing
one of his torn sneakers.
It’s not my fault. It really isn’t.
They shouldn’t have done this to me. You
shouldn’t have let them. Then he was pressing
into the dark of my shoulder, pounding his fists
against me, this righteous sobbing anger,
this rage that sometimes he thinks is all he has,
all he can count on.
As usual, Will was waiting for me
after class and as usual
he wouldn’t say anything
till I coaxed him — it had to be my idea,
not his, to talk. Part of the story
he’d told the cops: Annie had been beaten up,
then raped by her old boyfriend
who’d claimed she had money of his.
She’d begged Will not to come over,
to give her a few days
before they saw each other again.
Will hadn’t told the cops he’d been drinking
with friends, one who had a gun,
and they’d gone over to the ex-boyfriend’s
knocked on the door, and when
it’d been opened
Will had pushed his fists right away
into the man’s stomach. His friends
had held the man
when he’d crumpled over, and Will
had to lift his head
with one blow, before
with the other he could relocate
the man’s belly.
But when the woman began to scream,
when she called out the man’s name
and Will realized this was the wrong person,
the wrong apartment,
still he didn’t leave,
he didn’t stop shoving his fist
into the man’s gut till his friends
drew him away,
and still he wouldn’t be persuaded
from the parking lot,
he had the gun out
and this was how the cops had found him.
What else could I do? Let the creep
get away with what he’d done? I still had to
find him, didn’t I?
What would you do if your wife had been raped?
Would you sit down and draw up
a list of alternatives?
When the class was asked to list their talents
Sly put down adjusting.
There’s nowhere I can’t adjust.
Yeah, Gaelinda had to laugh,
laughing her fuck you laugh.
And when Dwayne confessed to how much
he liked being runner
for the Infirmary, maybe he’d study
to be a nurse,
his voice suddenly boyish, serious
like a kid’s when he’s talking about baseball
and playing in the majors someday,
Gaelinda called over to him, Homeboy
I know you too well,
I know you from the streets.
Today she wasn’t going to let him be anything
but an inmate.
I’m good at fucking men over,
put that down on your list. Don’t matter
where I am,
I do my dance.
When she was leaving, she balled up
she made many sharp edges to it,
many flat surfaces buckling on each other.
The paper almost barked.
It was a small pack of dogs in my hand.
You think I got room for this shit in my cell?
Afterward, I stroked the wrinkles out.
She’d signed her name in flowery spiralings
and swirls and over the i
there was a small heart
and under the column Obstacles
to Developing Your Talents
in lovely looping capitals
she’d written NONE.
Is this all we are to you — fuck-ups,
dope fiends, pimps,
a few murderers? funny stories
to tell at a cocktail party? “Why just today
I was chatting with my friend,
the baby raper”? Just who
are you going to show these poems to, these
The Warden? the shrink?
Was this what the rest of his life
would be like?
Stephen demanded to know. In a room
just big enough for a table, a broken,
a stack of 1944 Unitarian hymnbooks,
to sob to a lame group like this,
to an even lamer volunteer,
a teacher who’ll make a joke out of him later
to impress colleagues, co-eds.
My college students are writing in favor
of longer sentences, capital punishment.
It’s not fair they say, turning
from a film on child abuse. It’s justice
they want. For the two prim girls
at the shelter,
the baby whose mother held it
over a bridge railing,
the tiny one who had to be freed from
her mother’s tight grip.
And justice too for the boy
who came home to find his Dad
on the back porch
hanging by his neck?
who tried with a kitchen knife to saw
his father down,
who threw it at the neighbors
when they tried to lead him away? Justice
for this young man
in jail now for a string of burglaries?
And justice for that old machinist,
Mr. Mac, whose cough is a rusty blade
driven so deep into his body
he leans over as if stabbed? Two months ago
he killed a child,
the car leaped the curb
as if someone had wrenched the wheel
from his hands.
He told me he’d been drunk.
Can’t you imagine how he must have felt,
this seventy-two-year-old man
who’d never missed a day of work,
facing one to five now, mandatory?
No, my students answer,
no, they’ve never done anything that wrong,
nothing a criminal might do. A man
ought to be made to pay
for what he’s done, he ought to be
made to pay.
It’s not fair. That’s what I hear in jail too,
My class here wants justice also,
by which they don’t mean they’re innocent
of all charges against them
but only that life’s been punishing them
for something more
than what they did with a knife or gun,
what they started to walk out of a store with.
Michael tried to explain his mistake
as he called it, how once he’d begun
he had to keep stabbing.
As he talked, the guards came closer
as if they could tell from the little trembling
of his hand, his head’s tilt,
his voice rising to a harsh, thin whisper,
that he was about to start something
only they could stop.
Why did I have to make things difficult
for him — a counselor
who didn’t even come in with Jesus,
only paper, pencil.
At least at home Mike could run away,
climb his railroad bridge and sit for hours
with hundreds of feet of air between him
and his stepfather, planning
what to say to keep the bastard’s hands off.
What do I want from him?
Why have I given him this old watch,
Do you think I have to worry about time here?
It matters if I’m late?
Lifting its little coolness to his cheek,
its scratched bubble face,
he told me about his first watch,
the one he’d taken from his stepfather’s bureau
as the man slept —
the first thing he’d ever stolen —
and he’d climbed the railroad bridge
and not till the top had he slipped it on.
Maybe he’d never go home,
maybe he’d stay high up there, sleeping
with the winds
and the ghosts of the trains. The watch’s face
and he’d cupped his hands around it,
squinted till there were tiny sparks
Maybe Stephen’s right,
when he told me the Warden let me
come in here
to teach my course, to tutor,
to put out the inmate newspaper
just so he could look liberal, his jail progressive.
Don’t I dress carefully
so the guards will know to let me out
one iron gate,
then another, then a third?
Each time I leave, I wonder if I haven’t gone
into this jail
just so I can walk out of it,
whistling into a cool October, so much
sudden bright air,
all these open spaces welcoming me,
offering me no resistance.
Finally even Heavy agreed
to read aloud, today,
this quiet, 280-lb passer of bad checks,
his bold graceful handwriting
and the silk bandana he washes out
his only flourishes allowed here.
Tomorrow he was getting out.
What if he fucked things up again?
What could he find to talk about
with his sons?
He wanted to bring home each a toy
just like a normal father
returning from a business trip.
His voice kept falling in mid-sentence
and I had to keep encouraging him
to speak up,
and once I saw Bobby D.’s lips moving
as if someone had to finish
his homeboy’s words;
we were all leaning forward, Sly,
Dwayne, Lorenzo, Stephen, Will, old Mr. Mac,
Baby Mike, Eddie, Annette,
Boom-Boom, Mary Ellen, even Gaelinda,
even the Ice Man, Jesse —
as if with each person’s turn to read
we were standing at a door
slightly ajar, trying to follow the light
all the way in
as far back as possible, and then imagining
that was left in the shadows.
Out of sight of the prison
I pull off the road, open my notebook
and am writing
my face so close to the words
I might be arguing with them, whispering.
Looking up from the page just now
I almost expected to find myself back in jail
but when I gazed into the rearview mirror
I saw only my face, tinged yellow
and gaunt, the forehead unpardonably stupid.
How could the love I’d felt
just a few minutes ago
not still show? Listening so intently
hadn’t I too been transformed?
I’d thought surely
I’d have been able to bear this grace
past the first light, the next,
carry it into any traffic.