A kid? What the heck was a kid doing in here? I just stared at the boy in front of me, absolutely stunned by what I was seeing. Who in the heck would bring a kid to this place, much less expose him to me? I sat there, confused, while the kid looked around the room.
Then he turned to me and said “Hi!” in a cheerful little voice.
I just stared back and managed to squeeze out one quiet “hi” in response. I was afraid that if I said too much, I’d somehow damage him. Who the heck would let their kid into this place?
Ten minutes earlier, I’d had no idea what was coming. The guards had gotten me from my cell. They’d shackled me, for the first time in a long time, and then they’d walked me through the halls of the prison. At each barred entrance, there was a buzz and a click and doors were unlocked and opened. The guards weren’t worried. The guards were rarely worried. The shackles they’ve put on me weren’t normal shackles, they were electrified. And other guards were watching, by closed circuit video. Those guards can bring me down me at the touch of a button. And just to stop me from grabbing anybody nearby, the shackles come with plastic mittens.
After about a five-minute walk, we came to a door – a proper steel door. There was the normal buzz and click and then the guard in front gestured me into the room. It was an interview room, the kind lawyers use. There was a plastic desk there and two plastic chairs facing each other across the desk. But, aside from the guards, there was nobody else in the room. There was one other door, closed, facing the one I entered through. One of the guards connected my shackles to the desk. And then they left, leaving me alone.
And I sat there, quietly, patiently. You learn to be patient in prison.
And then, after a few minutes, the door opposite me buzzed. I lifted my head, wondering who was going to come through the door. And then the kid walked in. He was a boy, no more than eight years old, and he was walking into my interview room.
Right away, I was confused. But a moment later, I was scared. I was a violent felon. I knew, sitting there in that interview room, that this kid shouldn’t be anywhere near me.
But he didn’t seem to care.
“My name is Pete,” said the kid. He had blue eyes and dirty blond hair.
“Umm,” I managed, “I’m Jimmy.”
I struggled for my next thought, and then – as silly as it was – it came rushing out.
“Does your mother know you’re here?”
“Of course she does,” he said, with a grin.
I just stared. What kind of mother would send her son into a prison, to meet one on one with a felon like me?
“Why are you here?” I asked gently.
Pete just grinned, “I’m here to be your little brother.”
“My little brother?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Pete, “It’s the coolest new after-school activity. A whole bunch of us come here to the prison, to be little brothers.”
I’d heard of Big Brothers, but never Little Brothers.
“What is a little brother?” I asked.
“I dunno,” said Pete, honestly. “I guess we’re supposed to hang out.”
“In prison?” I asked.
And then Pete just shrugged. After a moment, he asked, “What’d you do?”
“I don’t want to talk about that,” I said, quickly.
“Okay,” said Pete, amiably. “Where you from?”
That I could talk about. And so, we got to talking. I told him about my town. It had been nice once. It had had a Plant. It had grown all the stuff a successful town should have. It had a Town Hall and a Rotary Club and nice houses and solid middle-class families. Sure, it had issues then, but they were kept behind the closed doors. Everything public reflected the happy routine of life at ‘The Plant.’
The kid was fascinated by ‘The Plant.’ For me, it was something my parents talked about, before my dad left. They’d worked there. For me, the plant represented a past they had and a future I wouldn’t have. The kid grew up in a totally different town, but they also had ‘the Plant.’ And their plant also shut down. But for the kid, it was something legendary. His parents hadn’t worked there, his grandparents had. It was about as real to him as the story of King Arthur.
And so, I told him what happened when the “The Plant” closed. I told him that was when things got bad. Instead of just curling up and dying like some Gold Rush town without any more gold, people tried to hold on. They had their car dealerships and cafes and Rotary Clubs. They had valuable houses they couldn’t sell. And mortgages. They didn’t want to leave; they couldn’t really. So, they just hung on.
The kid listened to every word, nodding his agreement. Occasionally, I explained, the government would invest in this program or that, or somebody would buy some big old building and try to do something useful with it. But all that did was slow things down. All that did was make things worse. The town died when the plant closed. We were just the fungus and rot left over. And we were a mess.
He got the rot reference. He knew what it was like.
But then he went away. He got an hour with me. One hour, every week.
When he came back the next week, I knew what was happened. I was excited to see him. Excited, and scared. I still didn’t know who thought this whole thing was a good idea. That second week, we started just as we had before.
“Does your mother know you’re here?”
“Of course, she does… What’d you do?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
This became the beginning of every conversation, kind of a private handshake between close friends. He’d always ask what I did. And I’d always refuse to tell him.
That second week, we kept talking, just like we had before. It was the kid who brought up the drugs. He said the big men in town weren’t the car dealers or plant managers. They were the drug dealers at the top of the local pyramid. He was eight years old and he already knew this. And he was right. In the old days, the car dealer and factory manager were the big men in town and the plant workers were in the stable middle and there was nobody on the bottom. But by now, in Pete’s day, the drug boss was the big man, the school teachers, police and town officials were the stable middle and everybody else was on the bottom. And everybody on the bottom was growing, processing, packaging, dealing or using the drugs. And that included the geriatrics.
When a whole town on welfare is spending its money on drugs, things are real bad. There’s nothing left over for the rest of life. And Pete was worried about ending up on that bottom.
Of course, there were ways out of the bottom. You could grow up and leave. You could work for the government. Or you could get into the local drug business – what everybody began to call, as a kinda joke, ‘The Plant.’
I asked him what he planned to do. And he told me, straight up like he was talking about the weather, “I’m gonna work ‘The Plant.’”
I just stared at him then. And then I realized why he was there.
He was there so I could convince him that was a bad idea.
Of course, I had no idea how to do that.
The third week started like the other too. But we got to talking about my past. I told Pete that when I’d been in school, I’d been a wiry and tough kid, just like him. I wasn’t too smart though. I was only smart enough to know I wasn’t smart enough to leave town or get a government job. That left me with brawn and a short temper. It wasn’t brains that taught me that was useful. It was experience. People began to give me space. They respected me. They feared me. And I liked that.
“So, what’d you do?” he asked. He was almost excited. And I knew I didn’t want to tell him. So, I skipped ahead and I told him about being sentenced by the judge. I told him the judge had sentenced me to this place, the New State Reform Prison. I told him I had no idea how long I’d be here; the sentence had been extended until my release at the prison’s discretion. Pete asked me what that meant, and I said I didn’t really know. I mean, I knew it meant there was no real time limit, but I didn’t know how long I’d be here. It could be for the rest of my life.
That scared Pete, I saw it did. But I knew fear wasn’t going to be enough to stop him.
And then our hour was up and Pete left for the third time.
When he came back the next week. We started with the same banter. And then he asked me what prison was like. And I told him. I told him I came into prison figuring I was built for it. I figured I could hold my own. But this prison wasn’t what I was expecting.
I told him about my first days here. I told him how they shaved my hair and shackled me.
And then I told him how the prison denied me water when I’d first arrived.
Pete was shocked by that. It was unbelievable to him. It had been to me too. They told me that if I wanted water, I had to agree to follow all the prison regulations – no matter what they ended up being. I held out for over a full day, but then I gave in. I needed water. And so, I agreed.
But the prison didn’t stop there. They still refused to give me food. To get food, I had to promise to use my time in prison well, whatever that meant. Eventually I agreed, desperate for something to eat, and then they fed me.
Prison was hell. But, I told Pete, I thought that when I got a chance to fight, I’d finally show that I belonged. Pete smiled at that. He was also good at fighting. So, I told him what happened. Another prisoner got up in my face, and I decided to get up in his. But there was no fight, I told him. Instead, we both ended up squirming piles of pain on the floor. Our shackles were electrified and some faraway guard dropped us like sacks of potatoes.
Pete was blown away.
I showed him my shackles then. I showed him the plastic mittens. I told him they could deliver a warning buzz, a sharp thwack of pain, or a knock-out blow. And in those early days in the prison, life had been crackdown after crackdown. Nothing was tolerated. Everything was watched. The shackles themselves had microphones. If we talked about the wrong things, ZAPP.
Pete seemed somber. So, I kept going. I explained our sentences were open-ended. And so, at first, we fought, figuring we were heroes resisting tyranny of the system. But they just cracked down harder. And without some cooperation, there was no end point.
Every one of us had convicted of a violent crime short of murder. We were brawlers, but whoever ran the prison was bigger and better at brawling than we had ever been.
And so, as things continued, as they shoved rule after rule shoved down our throats, we learned to take it. We worked when the prison told us to work. And when we got time off, we discovered that things went better if we used that time ‘well.’ We could call family or friends, we could talk to others to try to help them out, we could pray. But if we tried to deal drugs or barter or resist the prison or anything like that, life got hard, fast.
We learned to play along. Eventually we stopped fighting, even in our minds. The prison had broken us.
Pete had gotten downright scared, by the end of that conversation. He looked like he’d had a life plan, but everything had just been shattered. I knew how he’d felt. I’d felt it to, in those early days in the prison.
Pete didn’t come back for a few weeks then. I worried I’d overdone it. But then, three weeks later, he finally showed up again. There’s been some kind of school break, he said. His “Hi!” was a little less chipper though. He wasn’t really looking forward to our talk. I knew I had to tell him something nicer. Thankfully, there was something nicer to tell.
Only a few months after arriving at the prison, I’d transferred out of that first cell block. I learned the place I’d been was called the “Intake Block.” It was where they broke you.
But once you were broken, they moved you to the “Residence Block.” And in the “Residence Block” things were different. The shackles came off. And while the same rules were there, they stopped cramming them down our throats. Instead, the prison kept pushing the idea that we should be proud we followed them. They kept pushing the idea that we should be proud to be in this prison. While other prisons just punished and hardened their prisoners, we were learning an important life lesson. We were learning Industry and Charity.
Pete asked me about Industry and Charity and I found myself explaining it. Proudly. Some old English guy who helped free a bunch of slaves had also established a bunch of schools for kids in small towns in England – towns like ours. The schools were there to teach Industry and Charity. Industry was working and creating and being productive. And Charity was dedicating yourself to your community and to those less fortunate. Industry gave fuel to charity and charity gave purpose to industry. It was a Ying Yang thing but we did more than think about it, we practiced it. We did our work in the prison, we earned scrip. And then we spent it, in charity. And we discovered that it was, actually, rewarding.
When Pete asked if he could try out Industry and Charity, I finally realized what I could do to teach him. I could teach him Industry and Charity.
Pete and I kept talking for years. He told me about the work his was doing – although he was legally too young to work. He told me about the friends and family he was helping. He told me about the troubles he had, and the troubles his mother had. And he told me about teaching her what I was teaching him.
It only dawned on me, slowly, that by teaching him, I was teaching myself.
After almost five years of conversation, things changed again. I was transferred for the second time. But my third, and final, cell block wasn’t like the others. The residents called it the “Exit Block.” And it didn’t have cells, not like a normal prison anyway. This place was a bit more like a cheap hotel. We had our own rooms, with solid doors and all. The weirdest thing about it was that we could leave. Not only could we leave, we had to leave. Before, the cafeteria had just fed us. But here, they wanted payment.
We needed to work for our food.
Lucky for us, the prison had organized jobs for us, on the outside. Not chain gang jobs, just jobs. Mine was packing boxes at a distribution center. I went to work every day, I earned money from an actual job, and then I had to go back to prison every night. Break the rules and I could back to the Residence, or even Intake. I suspected, being as I was a felon and all, that the prison was paying my salary. But I didn’t care.
For the first time in my life, I had Industry down.
Charity wasn’t far behind. I, personally, didn’t need much; I was still living in the prison. And so, I found myself giving some of my money away. I helped other prisoners who had family in trouble. I helped Pete buy school supplies. I helped his mother buy groceries. I even gave donations to a local church. I had a family now. Not only Pete, but Pete’s mom (a single mother) and my friends in prison. And my friends in prison weren’t just close friends – the kind who would have your back – they were good friends, the kind who would make sure your back was worth having.
And then, a little more than six years after I’d been sentenced to an indefinite term, I was released from prison. It wasn’t a big shift. I kept my job and I kept my friends and I kept my new family. All that changed was that the curfew was lifted. I could sleep in the prison, if I wanted to. But I was also free to get my own place, on the outside.
I did get myself my own place; a crappy little apartment. I’d lived in a crappy apartment before prison, but that had been a dead-end. This place, not noticeable any nicer, represented a fresh start. I loved it. It was close to Pete’s place. I visited him all the time. I even came back to New State quite a bit. But bit by bit, my good friends left the prison and I spent less and less time there. We settled in the town, or other nearby towns. The locals knew us. The County and State were allowed to hire us. I discovered than that quite a few of the guards at the prison were former inmates. They moved on and up. They formed the steady middle of this town whose biggest business was Incarceration and Reform.
When the warden mentioned a prison reunion to me, over a cup of coffee in a local coffee shop, I didn’t laugh. The idea actually made sense. It was a way to remind ourselves of all we had overcome, and of how much potential we still had. It was a way to overcome real-world adversity.
The next day Pete asked me, as he always did when we met, what I’d done. He was 13 now, a little man. And, for the first time, I told him what had happened.
“I dropped out of high school,” I said, “I’d been a tough kid. I was respected and feared. But it didn’t get me into ‘The Plant.’ I was too unstable, even for them. Instead, just like everybody else, they just kept their distance. I was a loser in almost every sense. But I was respected and feared.”
Pete just listened. There was none of the appreciation for my old self that he once would’ve expressed.
“Then, one day, some guys came rolling into town; I still don’t know who they were or why they were there. It was a Friday night and they were drinking at the local tavern. And then they were looking around the bar and then were making fun of the locals. And I became a particular object of fun. They made fun of my hair. Of how I looked at them. At how I seemed so surprised that they’d make fun of me. And I knew, just knew, that I had to respond. All I had was my name. I had to preserve it.
“When the main guy whipped out his cell phone to take a picture of me, I told him to put it away. When he didn’t, I proceeded to beat him with his own phone – in public, in a bar. My knuckles had been coated with his blood. I’d hit him so hard, my face and hair had been splattered as well. I’d beaten him, I’d left him for dead, and then I’d gone home to my one-room apartment.
“I hadn’t even washed myself off by the time the police had come. My mug shot showed the evidence of my crime. But I thought I’d kept the only thing that mattered. I thought I’d kept the respect of others.”
It was then that Pete interrupted. He said, simply, “You were wrong.”
“How?” I asked, challenging him. I thought maybe he’d mention the stupidity of almost killing a man and then going to prison over a cell phone photo.
But that 13-year-old, who’d been talking to a violent felon for five years, just said, “You were wrong, because you thought the respect of others was the most important thing. You didn’t know it was more important to have a reason to respect yourself.”
I looked at Pete then, the wise small-town 13-year-old, and I realized he was right.
I looked at that wise 13-year-old boy and I realized that he was the reason I had to respect myself.
And then I finally understood why he’d been sent to me.
He hadn’t been sent so I could rescue him. He’d been sent so I could rescue myself.
I smiled then, and he smiled back, and I knew I’d been saved by my little brother.
And I knew, for the first time in my life, that I was truly free.
I wrote this story after a conversation with a woman on a train. She works in criminal justice – helping to handle young adult offenders. She told me about the resignation she felt when dealing with these young men. We discussed the generation to come, and the kinds of things that could forestall their own criminal futures. The discussion got me to thinking about prison and its failures. I think few fields have been more explored more than the art and science of reforming prisoners. It isn’t a reach to suggest that we’ve come up short in this effort.
And then it occurred to me that the Jewish people’s experience in the desert had a lot in common with prison. There was free cafeteria food, there were lots of rules, we couldn’t leave, there was a set sentence, and there was a warden who was always there to impose punishment and get involved when we made the wrong decisions. And, of course, there was an intake and release process.
The time in the desert was meant to reform a people – not from violence, but from slavery.
And we can see, in Parshat Chukat, how it worked.
When we left Egypt, G-d alone rescued us from Pharaoh. But here, we fight our own battles against a King (Sihon) whose heart was hardened.
When we left Egypt, Amalek attacked our weak and G-d had to command us to respond. Here, a Canaanite King takes a captive and we respond of our own volition.
When we left Egypt, G-d denied us food and water to teach us to follow His rules and rest on His Sabbath. The water we did receive was given by striking the rock – teaching us through force. In Chukat we are again denied water, but we are supposed to be taught by speaking to the rock – teaching us through reason.
When we left Egypt, we went through the sea on dry land because we couldn’t handle the spirituality of the waters. We sang a song, Az Yashir Moshe, about that process. But in Chukat, we become the waters in Az Yashir Yisrael.
In the desert we were reformed. With laws and rules and pride and a slowly more aligned relationship with G-d’s values, we were reformed. We were lifted from slaves who could not think ahead enough to make a sandwich for the Exodus itself to an independent people who could respond to the real-world challenges we would face. We were lifted beyond those who lived for name and reputation.
We were lifted until we could become a people who served a purpose greater than ourselves.
And, of course, we not only learned from G-d – we learned through teaching. In Shelach, we learned the commandments that would raise up children who could see themselves in a way their parents could not. We learned, just like Jimmy, through teaching. And we lock in that learning, even today, by remembering where we came from.
Finally, we are always tied back to the potential we found in the desert. This is core to the Parah Aduma (the red hefer). Dam, or blood, gives our cells their life. Adam (mankind) represents the will behind that life. Adama, the feminine land, represents the potential to actualize our will. And in ancient times, the cow or bull represents a nation.
In this context, the Parah Aduma – which is perfect and has never been worked – represents limitless national potential. It is tied together with elements represent deep roots (cedar), the ability to change (aZov) and trust in G-d (Tola’at Shani). Those who kill and Parah and burn it remove the cow’s potential and so they are impure. But those who are sprinkled with the ashes and water are renewed, in the face of death, with the symbolism limitless national potential. They are sprinkled on the third day (when life began) and the seventh (when life was given purpose) to renew both their physical and spiritual selves.
This is paralleled by the reunion mentioned in the story. It is an opportunity to be reminded of our ability to overcome real-world adversity – because of the challenges we’ve been through.
In the end, the Jewish people emerged from the desert as an imperfect people. We had the basic tools of survival, but we were far from G-d’s ideal people. So, the reform process wasn’t altogether successful. But it was, nonetheless, a success. The people who left Egypt could never have entered the land.
The story I’ve shared here isn’t legal or practical or constitutional. I can’t even speak to whether it would be effective. It is meant simply to help us think and to help us imagine what might possible for those we have written-off as beyond hope and help. After all, “We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but now we are free.”
The One who blessed our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzḥak, and Yaakov, Yoseph, Moshe, and Aaron, David and Solomon, may they bless and safeguard and preserve the captives: may the blessed Holy One shower compassion over them, and deliver them from darkness and strife, remove their bondage, deliver them from their afflictions, and return them speedily to their families.
Image: By Rainerzufall1234 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0