“I have friends in overalls whose friendship I would not swap for the favor of the kings of the world.” (Thomas A. Edison)
The incarceration experience for my ex-husband included meeting new people and making new friends. Yes, they were dressed in the only fashion acceptable for inmates–aka. orange jumpsuits–but learning about some of them completely changed my perspective of prison and many of those who reside there. They don’t fit Hollywood stereotypes; they shattered my expectations. (Prepare yourself. I’m about to expose my ignorance.)
When he first was taken into custody, one of the deputies talked to him about the “average” inmate. He said the jail had all types of men, who had committed all types of crimes, but that “most are just average ‘Joes’ that messed up.” I confess I’d never thought of criminals in that way before–as average people who had made mistakes.
He met an inmate with three college degrees. I had probably assumed, too often, that people commit crimes because they lack education and training for legal employment–that crime is all they’ve witnessed and known so that is what they do. Not true in all cases.
Sometimes I could even relate to their bad luck. Several of the stories I heard took my thoughts back to my teens and the dumb things teenagers sometimes do without thinking beyond the moment. I pictured kids I knew as a teenager, maybe even my brothers, doing similar things–only to a lesser degree. Here’s one friend’s story: He stole an unmarked police vehicle by mistake. In the process of messing with the wires he turned on the flashing lights, unbeknownst to the driver. The man’s friend, driving the other car, tried to catch up to the stolen car and let him know what had happened but the man thought his friend wanted to race–so he sped up. A state patrolman coming the other direction flashed his lights at him, thinking it was a cop who just forgot to turn his flashers off! The man got caught and went to jail.
The most eye opening thing I learned about his new friends, however, wasn’t really anything new it was simply something I’d forgotten as I lived a law abiding life on “the outside.” That is, even gangsters have hearts.
Despite the white collar nature of my ex-husband’s crimes, he was incarcerated with infamous criminals, well-known in all circles, including the media. For that reason, he never shared their names with us. But what stunned me, was how these notorious gangsters were so kind to an older man. After all, he was the age of their fathers. They introduced themselves to him, shook his hand, introduced him to others and told him, “If anyone gives you trouble, just let us know and we’ll take care of it.” (But no one ever bothered him.) They invited him to exercise with them. They showed him the ropes of life on “the inside.” They talked, played games and got to know one another. Yet despite their kindness, they were tough men. He never saw anyone cry or show emotion.
And then one day, my ex-husband lost it. The consequences of his choices hit him and said he felt them deeper than they ever had before. He cried. He had never seen any show of emotion in the jail and was mortified that he couldn’t help himself or stop himself from the flood of tears. In such confined space, there is nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, so everyone witnessed his grief. As he shared the experience, I don’t know what I expected the reaction might have been; my imagination conjured up many different scenarios, none of them sympathetic, all of them included my ex-husband getting beat up for being a sissy. But here is what really happened.
Everyone left him alone. They didn’t hassle him. They gave him his space. And not one inmate made fun of him, shunned him or beat him up for his weakness. In fact, during the most express moment of anguish and grief, the “biggest, baddest gangster of them all” came quietly to my ex-husband’s bunk, put a hand on his shoulder, told him everything would be o.k., and that he had a friend and was there for him if he ever wanted to talk about it.
That touched me.
I don’t know who the man really was, but I named him Mr. C. (“C” for compassion. I envision him looking like the infamous Mr. T of the old “A-Team” show, so basically I just changed the consonant in his name!) We need more Mr. Cs in the world, don’t we? More friends, more people with compassion and more people who choose to be there for for each of us, “outside” or in the slammer, when our unexpected life or its ramifications overwhelms us.
I know I’ve needed that and have been blessed by those who have shown compassion toward me and my children.
I don’t think I’ll ever look at criminals in the same way again. And it’s my unexpected life that gave me a different view.
“Deep down even the most hardened criminal is starving for the same thing that motivates the innocent baby: Love and acceptance.”(Lily Fairchilde)