I’ve been playing with an idea for a new book and it involves – wait for it – time travel.
Not like the H. G. Wells, Time Machine kind of time travel. There is not fanciful device to dial up the year and zap you to the exact time and place of your choosing. The story I’m noodling over doesn’t feature a Delorean with an aftermarket Flux Capacitor, either. But time travel does feature in the story and guess what? It’s real.
Time travel does exist. You can instantly flash back in time by twenty years or more, if you choose. Simply go to prison.
Walk into any prison yard, especially one where inmates serve long prison terms, and you are transported back in time. Prison has a way of freezing time. The habits, memories and experiences of the last time on the street are all they have to rely upon during their confinement. Life on the outside goes on without them.
The chatter, music choices and social norms reflect a time, decades in the past. I recall walking across the main prison yard and two older inmates saw the cell phone I had clipped on my belt. They started talking about how something like a cell phone seemed impossible. A phone connection without a cord – to the outside. Flash forward a few years and cell phones became the hottest prison contraband, but at that time, these two convicts were in awe of the device.
IMax movies, digital cameras, MP3 files and the Internet would be as foreign as Sanskrit if you were down for twenty years. Imagine coming up after serving a couple of decades in prison and getting tossed out into today’s technologically dependent world.
A few years ago, I was approached by a television network producer who wanted to film a segment on what an inmate faced after release. We talked about the idea of a pause button, when the gates slam behind them and no ability to press fast forward when they get paroled. Every facet of prison life is out of the convict’s control, as it should be. Let’s face it, their lack of effective and meaningful control got them in prison in the first place.
When to wake up, when to go to work, what to wear (typically, a stylish orange jumpsuit with the word prisoner stenciled down the leg) and when the lights go out – all controlled by someone else . The prison culture also sets limits on who convicts can communicate with on the inside. Prison gangs enforce their own set of rules, who has the green light to hit and who doesn’t. Who mules drugs and who can’t be trusted. Deal and sell within your own race, or face consequences. Rules within rules.
After adapting and surviving in this time warped place, you’re released back to your hometown and expected to reintegrate. That sounds easy, but as you sit in a seedy single-room-occupancy hotel, with your few belongings lined up on a shelf, like you did in the joint, you don’t know where to start.
You need an I.D. and you’re told to go to the DMV. The place is a teeming cesspool of people who don’t give a crap about rules, or respect. Having just gotten out of the slammer, it’s all you can do to refrain from shanking the dude in line in front of you. And what’s with the huge holes in his ears, and all that metal stud work? Then there’s the guy behind you talking to himself. He’s having an honest to God conversation with someone with a thingy hanging out of his ear called a bluetooth. That ain’t where your teeth are Mack.
When it’s your turn at the DMV counter, the woman says you could’a done all this on-line. I been standing in line all afternoon, I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about.
With a new license in hand, you stop off at a place with a help wanted sign and talk to the boss. You can’t stop staring at those huge holes in his ears. It’s the guy from the DMV. And he’s the one running this place. You don’t get the job, because you got no relevant experience, he says. You know it was because he didn’t like you seeing if your finger fit through those ear holes. It ain’t like he was gonna pay the ten bucks an hour for grunt work anyway. Ten an hour? What’s this guy smoking? That’s get your own place on easy street money.
You walk back to the hotel, because the ticket machine at the metro stop was a sci-fi nightmare. Money here, tickets there and what color line to take. How the hell do I know? You ain’t about to ask no one for help to figure the damn thing out. Walking’s a good thing, like you did around the track on the main yard, except everybody’s going every which way. It ain’t right and it’s aggravating. So, you duck into a liquor store. An old mom and pop shop. Now this brings back memories. You point to that amber pint of bourbon on the counter behind the register and the shop keeper rings it up. He tells you it’s $17.50. “I only want one, not three,” you say. He tries to tell you that is the price for one bottle. The only reason you don’t jump over the counter and pound this guy for trying to scam you is he’d call the cops and your on parole. Fine, you don’t wanna sell me something, I’ll go make toilet wine back at the hotel.
After buying bread, extra sugar, oranges, and plastic bags for your artisanal toilet wine, you find it would have been cheaper to pay the $17.50. Maybe that guy with the ear holes wasn’t lying about the ten bucks an hour. You make a mental note to go back and ask about that job again. He can’t hold an ear probing against you forever, right?
What do you think you’d miss going to prison? Or, what would be the most difficult adjustment coming home?