I leave the warmth of my wife to check on inmate #071834. He's been a major aggravation from the day he in-processed almost three years ago. “My side hurts,” he had moaned as a guard handed him a beige jumpsuit. Everyone hurts somewhere when entering prison. His appendix ruptured seventeen hours later—just after the Board of Correction’s biannual inspection had begun. His prison number stuck with me, as did his pale blue eyes and washed-out orange hair.
Within six months, petitions from #071834 began appearing on my desk. He wanted TV and rec privileges.
I had him brought to Holding on Wing C, where I could personally set him straight on my philosophy. He came in cuffed, and in spite of his tree-trunk neck, he looked too wide-eyed for armed robbery.
I leaned back in my chair. “I get the idea you don’t like the way we do things here,” I said. “But, at Morlan’s, we believe imprisonment is punishment for crime. It’s not about entertaining you or helping you find yourself. Rehabilitation comes when you’ve paid your debt. Understand?”
“But I won’t have a shot.” He said it with a sincerity that irritated me.
“You should've thought of that earlier. And television won't help you, anyway.”
A month later he petitioned to work in the kitchen and take correspondence classes—simultaneously.
“My prison is a deterrent,” I said to him the next day as he ate chow. “Pick one—work or school.” Prisoners needed enough thumb-twiddling-time to help them remember exactly where they were. I didn’t want them coming back.
“You like keeping us down, don’t you?” he said. Grunts sounded from neighboring tables. He paid for that remark soon after, when a guard found a calculator hidden in his cell. It was part of his GED curriculum, and the mail clerk had let it slide. I threw #071834 in the hole for thirty days for possessing unauthorized materials.
I said nothing about it to my wife.
The last two years he’s been in the hole as much as he’s been in his cell. Sometimes by his doing, sometimes by mine. I imagine us on either end of a bungee cord, propelling one another along on a path to who knows where. I need to sever this tie.
And the petitions have continued as if on a conveyor belt—work, study, exercise, fresh air. They traced the path of his every interest. His latest request was to attend church services. Prison ministry got to him. Of all people. I sent him a note: It seems your punishment is more than you can bear. If you were really a Christian, it would be your sin you found unbearable.
That night he was back in solitary for puncturing a tattoo into his forearm—God Forgive Me. The lettering pitifully crooked. Now ten days later, I’m barging through his infirmary door, incensed that he’s fighting a deadly staph infection, and that I’m here, instead of with my wife, enjoying the last hours of Christmas.
But I need to make sure he doesn’t die on my watch.
And I need to know he hasn’t really become a Christian.
I can’t be connected to him in that way.
His pale eyes are open and waiting. His neck doesn’t resemble a tree trunk anymore. “Well, Warden, looks like—“
“Shut up,” I yell. “What’s wrong with you? What on earth is wrong with you?” I suddenly want to punch something or wring something. I grab the front of his hospital gown and press down on his chest.
The kid starts crying. “I don’t know, honestly—I’m sorry. I’m begging God for help.” Instantly—as if from burning coals—I release him. He turns his head into each side of the pillow to dry his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, again.
The hollows of his face unnerve me. “You held a 74-year-old woman at gunpoint. What makes you think you deserve anything?”
“I don’t. I know I don’t.” Those damnable tears start again. “But why are you so Old Testament? What about redemption—grace?”
“You can’t demand them. You earn them by—”
My words amplify into a roar.
Oh, Lord. Tell me I didn’t just say that. Tell me I’m not like a Pharisee.
Instead, my Savior tells me I am bound.
I am bound to Inmate #071834 through Christ Jesus, God incarnate.
Who came to redeem all sinners.
Whose birth we are celebrating this season.
There is no severing this tie.
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