“Prepare for movement! All inmates report to the rec yard now!”
When I hear the order over the crackling loudspeaker, I instantly stop writing the letter to my younger sister. For a second I was back home again, but now my situational awareness heightens and I get on the offensive. Mandatory recreation time. The prison instituted this edict to force a healthy habit onto a mostly unwilling population, but for me it’s my daily Moment of Zen with a dangerous edge. The cellblock is loud and smells like urine mixed with body odor; I need to leave for a short reprieve every day. After four years, I’ve learned that if I spend too much time on an overcrowded cellblock, bad things happen.
Fights. Shakedowns. Boredom. Depression.
I quickly put on my blue shorts and New Balance sneakers; we only have three minutes to exit through the gates before disciplinary action. It’s odd to me that they rush us because I’m stuck in the one place where all you have is time. No more work deadlines or picking up kids from daycare. I don’t have to worry about being late for a family picnic or date night with my wife. That’s my old life—a faded photograph where I can’t make out the details anymore, just a silhouette of the past.
My bunky grabs his radio, and I slam the cell door shut. Even though all seventy-four men on D-Block will walk to the yard together, somehow things get stolen from people all the time. I look down the row of cells and see that several of the weak criminals and pedophiles are terrified to go outside onto the battlefield. I imagine an upright lieutenant coaxing a scared soldier to fight with honor; instead, an acrimonious, overweight corrections officer pries one of them from the cell bars and knees him in the gut.
“Get the fuck outside cocksucker, or you go in the hole.”
Some days they choose the safety of solitary confinement over the constant fear and uncertainty of the yard, but most of the time they comply after some bullying or physical abuse. I tense up and run through my mental checklist as we walk through two gates and a metal detector before entering the spacious yard. Sharpened three-inch plastic blades hidden in my tube sock, handle wrapped in duct tape and made sticky with adhesive. Check. Sneakers tied tight in case of a brawl. Check. Scan my surroundings for immediate threat or anyone targeting me. Check. Strut toward the pull-up bar like a bad motherfucker and let everyone know that this muscular, six- foot-four, former Krav Maga instructor will rip their head off if they choose to engage me in any way other than respectful or enter my personal space.
A slight breeze lifts a dust storm of dry dirt and sand from the ground, and I taste the gritty mixture on my lips. I’m blinded by the bright Florida sun; salty sweat starts to bead on my forehead after only ten reps. I breathe deep through my nose and look around the general population rec yard, seeing a couple of guys I know and giving them a fist bump. It’s good to have some back-up if you’re not a gangbanger (I’m neutral/unaffiliated), so I maintain casual relationships with the more normal and connected inmates I’ve gotten to know. Orderlies and hustlers and intellectuals. And the tough stoics like me who don’t put up with any bullshit. Being a suburban whiteboy from Philly in a Deep South state prison makes me a minority, so I work hard to maintain my reputation.
It vexes me to be a pacifist in such a violent world, but a man can adapt to anything given the right motivation. Mine is playing soccer with my son again. Having coffee with my mom. Going to a music festival with a girl I just gotta see. Christmas shopping. Football with my brothers. All the things I think about while lying on my bunk at night, falling asleep dreaming of memories.
The yard is crowded with hundreds of men. While I work out I keep my eyes on the bathroom fifty feet away. There’s a Hispanic punk with his Black boyfriend fighting some Haitian and they’re beating him bad. I see blood spilling from his nose onto the tan clay, and his arm looks contorted. It’s none of my business. The bathroom is in a blind spot from the guard tower high above us, a heavenly spy looming over the convicted. Even if the bored officer holding an AR-15 assault rifle wanted to intervene, nothing much would happen.
Muffled voices shout from the nearby buildings toward men standing along the fence; confined inmates holler messages through the small wire windows facing the rec yard, relaying information about switches or court dates or transfers.
Tension lingers over the yard like fog on a lagoon—at least three different gangs are having a meeting, and I study their movements closely. I mostly keep to myself, so nobody pays attention to me. I’ve learned how to keep my head down just low enough as to not make eye contact, but not look timid. It’s a subtle art. The skinheads/Unforgivens circle up by the weight pile, scheming and tallying shit to each other. Their main concern is making money. And doing heroin. Because of my German ancestry and large stature, I was asked to pledge with them in the past. I rejected the offer, but feared repercussions that never came. The Latin Kings are by the soccer field (a large rectangular patch of hard dirt with four orange cones) and speaking Spanish loudly at a staccato pace. Far on the other side of the enclosed yard, the Bloods hang by the basketball court, selling drugs and plotting like lions trying to take over the animal kingdom.
There’s a small chance that I might not make it out of prison alive, and the main reason is the recreation yard; it’s one of the most dangerous places in any correctional institution. I decided long ago that I would never be a victim, but it only takes an instant for the trajectory of your life to change in here. Once I was in line to get a drink from the water fountain after running laps. The guy in front of me was bending over to take a sip of water when a gang probate came up behind him and slit his throat with a razor blade.
I’d seen the prey around before but we’d never met. As I watched him bleed out on the concrete slab by the fountains, I had a strange yearning to know his name. I wanted to know if he had a family that would miss him. Then I scurried away like everyone else; that’s what we do in here. But if I was attacked and possibly dying, I would want someone to think about my family. It seems inhumane to leave a potential murder scene, to not help or be a witness to the atrocity, but things are twisted in here. I was raised with morals and principles, but I also know self- preservation. I know survival.
I heard the man didn’t die, but he probably wished he had.
After strength training I stretch before my mile run. I’m wrestling with the usual suspects in my mind as I do the Warrior II: regret, shame, loneliness, and lost time. My addiction and life choices have landed me behind bars once again; I’ve lost so much because of this cycle of failure, and it’s easy to get depressed thinking about my mistakes. Serving time for theft is embarrassing. I made desperate decisions as a slave to my vices, but I never wanted to hurt anyone. I never intended to disrupt so many people’s lives with my selfish ways. As I lower into a Downward Dog, I silently repeat my mantra to change my life.
Let go and start new.
The white-hot sun is beaming onto the yard like a laser from the firmament. Dragonflies buzz and hover, their amber-striped wings flickering in the sunlight. I breathe deep and sink into Pigeon Pose. Once I’m present, I notice other wildlife around me with clarity, a union between forces of nature. Southern fire ants crawl around the bare dirt, scavenging a dead jumping spider. A painted lady butterfly clings to the underside of the chain link fence only feet away. On the other side of the three fences topped with barbed wire, two snowy egrets take flight from a small detention pond, relocating to a patch of lime-colored sabal palms to eat. If I look closely, there is beauty within this desolation. Calm inside the terror.
I start to jog and focus on my breathing. Wildflowers poke through cracks in the three-foot-wide concrete track circling the dusty yard. Almost immediately, I get a stitch in my side and remember my dad’s advice.
“Run through the pain, Ryan. It will eventually go away if you’re aware and push on.”
I know his words are echoed in more than just running; the all-American track star always taught us life lessons with metaphors. I keep going around the quarter-mile track until my side stops hurting and I find a good pace. I don’t wear my radio when I run. I seek the moments of silence in between the small groups of inmates around the track. When the wind whispers through a forest of loblolly pine trees surrounding the pond, I hear tranquility. A magenta-gray speckled gecko darts across the path under my feet as I approach its rocky hideout. I’m aware of the pain in my life but push on. I run faster—I’m on pace for a seven-minute mile as I round another bend on the track.
I’m racing past the handball court when I see a scrawny redneck get bitch-slapped. A stocky Mexican pulls the sneakers right off the kid’s feet, leaving him standing there bleeding from his mouth and shaking in his socks. When I see the violence around me I start to believe that this is no place for a peaceful person like me, but then I evoke my teacher’s words.
“Being in prison is a test of compassion and nonattachment, which those of us on the outside will never be blessed with. Practice mindfulness and no ego. Acknowledge impermanence. Pass the test.”
It wounds my heart to be stuck in a justice system filled with so much aggression and hatred, but I know my sensei is right—I need to practice random acts of kindness to center myself, to stay connected to my Buddha-nature, and if I can do that in here, I can do it anywhere.
I sprint the last eighth mile—the kick—and finish in good time. I breathe hard with my hands on my head and walk to the water fountain, my gut clenching when I bend to take a drink. I’m watchful of who’s behind me. I head to the back of the rec yard toward a serene view of an old water oak, one hundred feet beyond my world. I sit cross-legged and stare at the regal tree, centering my thoughts on the now. As I relax I see a vision of ecstasy; a great white heron perches on a crooked limb arching toward the ground. Its neck is light gray, with a central line of spots down the front edge. The sharp bill is dull yellow, and its legs and feet are pale. The bird’s crown is spiked as it preens its pasty feathers, long neck twisting around to fluff its showy plumes. It looks three feet tall and unreal.
I control my breathing and stare in awe at the picture of nature, hoping for this equanimity to last until I’m released. Other birds fly from the edge of the trees; I see a trio of finches and a chipping sparrow, singing its simple trill. A yellowthroat warbler sails from branch to branch. But the heron is the most majestic creature, sitting on the tree bow and turning its head left and right. I watch it begin to beat its wings, so slowly it seems he will never rise up into the air, wings so fluid they look like two silk sheets flapping in the wind. It begins to ascend above the ground and heads right at me, a graceful flier with a five-foot wingspan. The heron soars with great, slow beats on wings stretched wide, and turns before it reaches the fence, disappearing back into the fringe after saying hello.
In that moment, I realize that no matter where I’m at or who I’m with, life can be gratifying. That if I surround myself with the beautiful by always looking for it, the harm will have no place to go.