Friday, October 14, 2022

From the Iowa Prison Writing Project


“Brothers In Solidarity” “Yo! Check those clouds!”, someone yelled from behind me. Struggling against my shackles, I rubbernecked over the guy beside me for a better view out the barred windows. A storm loomed in the foothills, somewhere between San Quentin and Soledad, CA, our destination for the day. Next I knew I was silently imploring (of no one in particular), “Please let those clouds upend this bus, either killing me instantly or abetting my escape.” After two years of incarceration, including a lengthy jury trial, I’d finally accepted my fate, albeit far from contented or hopelessly defeated; not fearful, I was mentally exhausted and desperate for relief by whatever means the universe deemed most appropriate.

A child of the Rust Belt, I was born in Detroit and spent my formative years in Northwest Ohio. Here, I’d learned early that such poached orange-green clouds, while handsome, were harbingers of destruction and sorrow. Occasionally predicting funnel formations or other shapes less natural, yet no less sinister, they were wont to maim or kill you—or so I was conditioned to think. Tornado sirens or emergency weather bulletins, rudely interrupting radio and T.V. programming, were common. And not unlike Pavlov’s famous dogs, I’d be sent drooling and scampering toward the nearest window, a senseless automaton oblivious to my mother shouting me down in a panic. My irresponsible curiosity satisfied, I’d join my older brothers and parents in the laundry room, safe amid their shared embrace and mountains of dirty clothes. As obscure to me then as obvious now, we all relished the drama of those episodes. Over the years and in kind, my brothers and I’d unwittingly continue to entertain our parents with much more frightening dramas; indeed, I reluctantly chewing up the scenery since my 2016 arrest.

As we neared the prison, I saw its razor-wire fencing, gunner towers, and obnoxious lighting. Otherwise, the low, uniform buildings, saddled between two modest yet fetching mountains, were more reminiscent of a suburban business park. Two years prior, I’d have thought this scenario impossible, no less than the worst circumstances I could conceive. But after 22 months at Marin County Jail (and two months at San Quentin), locked up 23 ½ hours/day, the prospect of settling at a State prison, with real opportunities for self-betterment, was profound relief ... in a masochistic sense, I suppose. I was about to script Act 1, Scene 1 of a new life, ripe for much-needed rehabilitation and invaluable education through an extraordinarily candid, immersive introduction to the human condition. In fact, I was right where I needed to be, and I knew it. A neuropsychological mess and critically astray upon arrest, I was resigned to be redesigned. Unlike so many of my “brothers in solidarity”, most beaten down much longer and harder than I, many more deprived of loving families and friends, or relatively safe, conducive environs, I still had to trust that I wasn’t a lost cause. I had to believe that. Any other possibility was, well ... not possible.

As psychologically blind and deaf as I’d become, I’d seen the storm strengthening and heard the alarm bells for years, and 2,000 miles from the sanctuary of that laundry room. But, I was (and am) the same good-natured, promising boy onto whom my family had centered those protective huddles and whispered encouraging words. Now conditioned to suppress such sentiment, self preservation in this volatile world I now call home, I’m reminded that the same robust will that landed me here is also that which will ultimately guide me to, through, and well beyond my release date.

By current California Department of Corrections estimates, I can expect to be roughly fifty years old upon release; freed from physical, institutional confinement anyway. The stigma and overt discrimination will certainly manifest with reentry, my felony conviction to forever dog me. At the same time, I can expect to devote the following years to positively affecting ill-informed hearts and minds. Not only those misconceptions about me personally (some well justified, of course), but also the millions of similarly remorseful, accountable, hopeful convicts nationwide – fallible errants we.

There’s a familiar superstition among prisoners that warns of bad luck to those who look back on the prison as they leave, ensuring their eventual return. But alas, I intend to turn hard and stare down that gate, committing it to memory along with the myriad other long- and short-term residencies I’ve held throughout my life, domestic and abroad. Sure, it won’t be like the lighthearted superstition that had me tossing coins into Rome’s Trevi Fountain, but no less powerful or, better yet, empowering. Now living, and in many ways thriving, as the protagonist in what just three years ago still seemed a surreal nightmare, I no longer fear imprisonment or most any other imaginable hardship.

I hope that my brother will meet me outside that gate. A decorated, well-respected American soldier, he’ll be wearing mirrored sunglasses and a hoodie, strategically subdued and nondescript ... to all but me. He’ll give a solid hug, jarring back pats, and a swift jab to my chest before tossing his arm over my shoulder and leading to his car; ritualistic reunion I’ll understand and appreciate with ambivalence. As my dear friend, he's excited to see me but circumspect. As an honorable citizen, he rightly condemns the acts that brought me there. As my big brother, he loves me rather unconditionally.

As we drive, my brother will speak of his wife and wonderful son. An eternally humble, disciplined serviceman, he’ll deflect my typical, sincere interrogations about his military-related whatnots and soforths. I’ll soon relent and instead brief him on my practical, ideal, then fantastically implausible plans: at once to fulfill my obligations to the State of CA, divest my defunct businesses, and to ardently work to affect criminal justice reform. We’ll share a comfortable silence as I stare instinctively at people in passing cars, they talking, singing, laughing; enviable models of contentment deprived me for so many years. My attention will then be drawn to the horizon, fixated expecting to see those ominous clouds and what they portend. Now also, in my own unique way, battle-hardened, world-weary, and deeply scarred, I turn a confident smile to my brother in solidarity. —Charles Tooker, 2019 CTF State Prison Soledad, CA