When you drive to Oxford, Wisconsin, by way of U.S. 51, the first commercial establishment you come upon within the town limits is a weather-beaten saloon called Spuds and Suds. Last summer, when I passed through, the building’s outer walls were decorated with advertisements for 7-Up, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the Budweiser 1988 Lawn Tractor Races. During high season, the tavern doubles as a deer registration center, and the ads compete with posted instructions telling each hunter to attach a carcass tag to his animal’s ear or antler.

Not far down the road is the town’s commercial strip, a hub that consists of about a dozen businesses, including a real estate firm that advertises homes for under $30,000 and a cafe that sells sundaes and six-packs of beer. If you pass by and make a right on County G, you’ll find yourself on a bending road that leads to a federal correctional institution. With luck, you’ll never have to make that trip.

FCI Oxford sits in a wooded area in the middle of nowhere. The land supports three separate institutions. The largest is a prison, security level four on a scale of six, which houses about 775 fairly violent men. Next to the prison is the Oxford “camp,” security level one, which houses perpetrators of nonviolent crime, an all-male population drawn mostly from northern Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The third building is a UNICOR factory. UNICOR is a corporation, staffed by federal inmates nationwide, that produces an odd array of products–brooms, mailbags, office furniture, and uniforms for patients in VA hospitals among them. At Oxford, the inmates produce cables for tanks, missiles, and nuclear submarines, and the operation has thus far turned a tidy profit, all of which goes back to the Bureau of Prisons to be used for educational and vocational programs.

The Oxford camp is well known in Chicago’s criminal justice circles because in the last three years many lawyers, judges, and politicians from Cook County, targets of federal investigations of corruption, have begun to call it home. A former inmate had warned me that but for the prison next door, the camp could be mistaken for a nursing home, but what came to mind when I first saw the building was an oversized, state-sponsored highway rest stop. As I left my car I could see a few inmates sitting under an awning at a table on the patio. A few feet from where they sat was a sandbox used by children during visiting hours. Behind the building is a volleyball net, an area for boccie ball, a court for tennis or basketball, and a baseball diamond at which local teams face off against the inmates. The camp’s softball team has been highly regarded in the past, taking the county championship in 1987 and placing second in 1986. The team’s supporters look forward to the games not just out of fondness for the national pastime, but also for the chance to ogle the women who accompany the visiting teams.

As I neared the entrance to the camp building, a jogger heavy with sweat passed by on a track that looped around the facility. No guards monitored the area and there were no fences–the runner was held back only by his conscience and by small signs that said simply, “Out of Bounds.” Inside I was met by no system of buzzers, locks, and requests for identification. A passing man in prison greens directed me to the office I was looking for.

The absence of barbed wire, guard towers, and other accoutrements of hard-time prisons have created an image problem for the institution. A Tribune profile, which opened with the phrase “a steaming kettle of soup and a salad bar,” labeled the camp “comfy.” Some prosecutors agree with that label and argue that the institution’s seemingly permissive regime makes it difficult to get an inmate to cooperate with ongoing federal investigations. “They get up there, they see how loose it is, they see people they know, and they think, hey, I can take this,” one assistant U.S. attorney said to me recently. “We’d get a lot more help if the conditions were a lot more grim. I’d trade a sentence of three years in Cook County for ten years in Oxford any day.” Those who buy this line of reasoning tend to refer to the Oxford camp, and others of its ilk, as “Club Fed.”

In separate interviews this summer, two former inmates and the camp’s supervisor presented a different view of life in the camp. Their stories follow.

Charles Stewart came to Oxford in March 1985, two months before the camp opened, and he has been overseeing operations there ever since. He’s 44 and wears gold wire-rimmed glasses; there is something about his appearance and demeanor that makes his official title seem appropriate: he is called “administrator,” not “warden.” His office is decorated, like the rest of the camp, in spartan and unremarkable detail.

“We’re the smallest camp in the bureau,” he told me. “We average 145 to 150 prisoners, but we’ve gone as high as 176. The camp was built for 104, for two men to a room. Today we have 143. It’s not as overcrowded as most camps. The general public thinks that most of the inmates are businessmen. In fact, 50 percent are drug abusers. The majority of the inmates, maybe about 55 percent, are blue-collar.”

A profile of camp inmates, dated April 7, 1988, reported that 50 percent were in for drug offenses, 17 percent were in for fraud, 7 percent for theft, and 3 percent or less had embezzled money or committed robbery, forgery, income-tax violations, or firearms offenses. (12.8 percent had committed “other federal criminal violations” and 1.9 percent had committed offenses on government property.) The report went on to say that on that date the camp’s population was 20 percent black and 80 percent white. (The 80 percent included 7 percent Hispanic and one man of Japanese descent.) The men ranged in age from 20 to 70, with 88 percent over 30.

“You’d have a younger population inside other places,” Stewart said. “It’s the older semiprofessional who commits these kinds of crimes. We get some guys doing six months and others doing up to ten years, but the average sentence is about a year. We don’t have any violence. We’ve had no rapes. You just don’t have that type of inmate here. They’re weeded out for a history of violence, for escapes, for sexual assaults, and for failure to report for trial or sentencing. We’ve never had an inmate assault a staff member. We’ve had a few fights between inmates amounting to one or two blows, but that’s all.”

An inmate who gets into a fight is transferred to a security-level-two institution–a prison with fences, more rules and regulations, and less freedom of movement.

“We’ve had one walkaway,” Stewart told me, “a guy who was in on a drug-offense charge from Milwaukee. As far as I know he’s never been caught. If you’d taken a poll that day, he’d have come in as least likely to walk away. He surprised everyone. He’s the only one we’ve had in three years. It’s a ridiculous offense. The marshals find 99 percent of escapees because eventually they all go home. Then they get two to five years added on to their sentence.”

Stewart bristled when I brought up the news coverage of the camp. “It paints us as coddling inmates,” he said, “and it feeds the hysteria of the population that we are too soft on criminals. I think it’s a cheap shot. First of all, from a taxpayers’ point of view, it’s very economical to run these camps. If you housed 140 of these men in the prison it would be very expensive, you’d have to increase security staff operations, maintain the fence.

“Secondly, I think you ought to treat an inmate with as much trust and respect as he can be responsible for. These guys have demonstrated on the street that you can put them in an environment that is less damaging to them, and that’s better for them and for the staff. This is a more normal atmosphere. At higher level institutions, they’d have more people telling them what to do more often. Here they have a chance to demonstrate more responsible behavior.

“Here the inmate’s primary burden is leaving his family, leaving his home, being away from his wife, his kids, his job, his community. Some of the Greylord types had a high social standing within their community, so it is more of a letdown for them to go to prison. In terms of their reputation, they have more to lose. In the end, I think it may hurt a judge more than a carpenter. A carpenter or a plumber, when they get out, they get a job through the union, they don’t lose their license. A lawyer, he loses his license, his whole means of support. An accountant, sometimes he’s not allowed to handle funds anymore. A realtor, you can be cut off from certain jobs. An insurance salesman may find it hard to get his business back.”

Stewart told me that until recently the camp had offered vocational training programs in both sewage treatment and powerhouse maintenance. Both programs were AFL-CIO apprenticeships, programs that demanded 3,000 hours of on-the-job training as well as classroom work. Stewart says that the few inmates who were inside for long enough to complete the programs weren’t interested, and so the programs have been terminated. The UNICOR factory offers certification as a solderer, however, so an inmate can leave the camp with a marketable skill.

The camp also offers GED classes, and occasionally there are nonaccredited classes offered through the University of Wisconsin at Baraboo. The university requires a minimum number of students, however, before it will provide a teacher, and given the small population and the short sentences being served, it is rare that a large enough group is assembled for a class. In addition, since prisoners get no discount, there is the problem of tuition. The nearby prison has a far better educational program and a better library, but the population of the prison and the camp are not allowed to mix. “If campers went into the main facility,” Stewart says, “there would be a greater risk of the introduction of contraband.”

The camp does offer a drug-abuse program, an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, and a Bible study group. Twice a year, the camp sponsors a marriage enrichment seminar for inmates and their wives (the seminar does not include conjugal visits). Protestant and Catholic chaplains are in the camp at least once a week, and a rabbi comes up from Madison every other week. One former inmate complained to me that the camp’s psychologist was no help at all. Stewart defended the man and the help available to inmates, citing the fact that in addition to drug and alcohol counseling available within the camp, a consulting psychiatrist was available when needed. “You talk about a lawyer coming in here making a hundred thousand dollars a year, what type of psychological treatment does he need?” Stewart asked. “Generally these men functioned very well in the community and don’t need psychological or psychiatric intervention in the camp, and when they do, they get it.”

Stewart is proud of his facility, and its operation seems to have been designed to maximize efficiency. Only one guard is present on each shift, and the entire administration takes place in three offices that take up a total area of about 40 square feet. The chapel doubles as a room for AA and drug-abuse programs. Three televisions serve the entire population. The library is small and unimpressive; it consists of basic law books and paperback novels of no great quality. On paper, the inmates’ gym sounds impressive: they can lift weights, work out with Nautilus equipment, punch a heavy bag, or play pool, ping-pong, handball, and half-court basketball. In fact, however, the gym is entirely too small to support all of those activities. Handball and basketball players cannot work out simultaneously, as their courts overlap, and I imagined that the noise level at peak activity time must be immense. Stewart admitted that the camp’s acoustics in general were terrible.

The inmates’ rooms have neither bars nor doors; they are functional, spare, and hard. Each has two sets of bunk beds, two desks, and four lockers. The desks are minuscule, about one foot deep and two feet wide. The lockers contain the prisoner’s allotment of clothes: one shirt, one pair of pants, a tie, a sport jacket, and a set of workout gear, all of which can be worn when the inmate is not working at his daily job. Above each bed is a bulletin board; some hold family snapshots, while others feature clippings from Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. Stewart told me the pinups are regulated: bikinis are allowed, but exposed breasts and pubic hair are forbidden.

The arts-and-crafts equipment allows inmates to paint, crochet, or to work with leather or ceramics. The ceramics room was full of inmate-produced dogs, unicorns, cookie jars, chess pieces, and beer mugs; as Stewart and I stood in it, a man wearing a “Gold’s Gym” T-shirt and a weight lifter’s belt came in to examine his work. Stewart had been telling me that the ceramics room was well used, that the men made gifts for their wives and children, and the weight lifter verified this. “Ceramics is really popular,” he said. “Like on the leatherwork, you make a belt and a wallet, then what’re you gonna do? Here you can do all kinds of things.”

The inmates are assigned to job crews in landscaping, sewage treatment, the powerhouse, the kitchen, or in the UNICOR factory. The best paid jobs are in the factory: a man starts at 22 cents an hour and works his way up to $1.10, plus, of course, room and board.

All in all, the camp is clean and well kept, but its cement-block architecture left me feeling that living there would be like being incarcerated in a high school cafeteria. I imagined being a judge accustomed to having a big house, a full liquor cabinet, a cleaning woman, and a new Cadillac every year; someone used to spending Saturdays on the golf course and to having the power to decide people’s fates and to award millions of dollars in damages. You arrive in Oxford and not only do you have no car, but your sentence is so long that you’ll have to retake the driver’s test when you get out. You have one set of greens, one shirt, one tie, one suit. You do your own laundry. You work on an assembly line at a soldering plant. You eat cafeteria food. You have a choice of iced tea or coffee and 20 minutes to eat before the next shift of inmates arrives to eat. Your biggest decision is whether to take a walk, watch TV, or maybe make a nice cookie jar for the wife. No, made a cookie jar last week. Make a unicorn this time.

It sounds like hell to me.

A few days before I met Stewart I talked to a former inmate I’ll call George. George had gone to Oxford as a white-collar offender and he agreed to talk with me as a favor to a mutual friend and only if I would agree to conceal his identity. We met at a coffee shop, and he took a seat near a window, as far as he could get from the next table, and would not allow me to tape our conversation.

“Your first day in jail you don’t know anyone. You don’t know who to sit with. You don’t know what you’re doing. It’s the hardest day of your life. The first time a guard calls you ‘inmate,’ that really hits you. Eventually you fit in. The camp is divided into the snitches and the nonsnitches. I’d say about half to 80 percent of the guys had cooperated [with authorities].

“Some of the Greylord guys who cooperated got a hard time. I heard about a Greylord lawyer, he wouldn’t do bench presses with certain guys around. He thought they might come over and put 250 pounds on him and he’d be crushed. A couple guys maintained they were hit men, they could get you on the outside. There was a story about another Greylord lawyer who was playing softball his first day, and he was pitching, and the other team was harassing him and kept trying to hit the ball right at him, trying to hurt him. They did that to guys playing flag football, too, try to hurt them.

“One of the judges never talked to any of the guys who had cooperated. A guy came up to him and said ‘I’d like to talk to you,’ and he said, ‘You’re responsible for killing Judge Rosin and putting so-and-so in jail. Don’t ever talk to me.’ [Judge Allen Rosin committed suicide on the day he was to be indicted on Greylord charges.] This judge hung around with the OC [organized crime] people. The Italians couldn’t understand the cooperation thing at all. ‘If somebody did that in our group,’ they said, ‘they’d go down for the count.’

“A lot of guys won’t say what they’re in for. One guy said he was a fireman but everybody knew he was a snitch cop from Philadelphia. You have these pet guys, they have access to the files at night. Some inmates can find out anything about you. The file control is too loose. And the guards, I wasn’t friendly with them. They’re always looking for information. They’re rural people, paid only about eight bucks an hour.” [Stewart claims that no inmate ever has access to the files and that file-room security procedures are very strict.]

“Maybe 30 percent of the guys were Latinos–Colombians, Mexicans, all drug dealers. No problem. They worked out, kept to themselves. There were a couple of Medicaid-fraud doctors, a lot of pharmacists, some bankers and stockbrokers. About 15 percent of the guys were Jewish, some of them ate kosher food, and they had a special cabinet in the kitchen.

“Everybody has different ways to deal with time. Some guys get religion. It’s a real phenomenon, and it would surprise you, the guys who turn that way. Maybe they don’t have time to think about it on the outside. Once you’re in there, you’ve got all kinds of time to think. There’s nothing to do but work or work out. Some guys spend all their time listening to the radio or watching TV. I knew a guy who slept all the time. He had this attitude that for every hour you sleep, you cheat the government of the time. Another guy, he played his radio all night. You’re supposed to have headphones, but it’s not enforced. His roommates put up with it, didn’t complain. You’d look dumb for doing that. It’s one thing to cooperate with the government on the outside, but a snitch on the inside, now that’s a snitch.

“You can walk and walk around that track, and you can see the woods the whole time, and there’s the temptation to walk into them–not to run away, but just to be in the woods. But you can’t. There are stories about guys who snuck off and met their girlfriends in the woods, and they got in trouble and got sent to the ‘hole.’ You wonder whether those stories are true or if they’re made up by the guards to keep you from sneaking off. [Being sent to “the hole” here means being sent up to the prison and being confined in a typical cell there for about 22 hours a day. The inmate may have a roommate and is allowed to have a radio and books.]

“They open all your mail except letters from your lawyer. They have these military-type inspections every once in a while; they search your locker. A lot of guys don’t lock their locker so they’d be in a better legal position if somebody planted something in it. If a guard thought you were a troublemaker or if another guy didn’t like you, they could set you up.

“You can’t have any green money. They caught a guy with it when I was there and put him in the hole. [Paper money is forbidden, Stewart says, because it can facilitate corruption. He points out that a hundred-dollar bill is easily concealed and could be used to purchase drugs, but that the transaction is much more difficult if consumer and seller have to exchange a hundred dollars in quarters.] The maximum amount you can have in your locker is $10 a week, in quarters, nickels, and dimes. You can spend it in the food machines. The machines sell Dannon yogurt, salads, fresh fruit, canned pop, and candy. You have commissary once a week, you can buy soap, shampoo, cigarettes; some food like ice cream, fruit, jalapeno peppers.

“You don’t have many pleasures. There’s food, cigarettes, and TV. There’s three TV rooms. The tougher guys often control what you watch. The Bear-Packer games are very big, right up there with the Super Bowl and the World Series. The food varies, depending on who’s working in the kitchen. It’s good if a guy takes pride in it. If he just sees it as his job, it’s not very good. One guy I remember put out a salad bar you couldn’t match in Lincoln Park. Guys sneak food out of the kitchen; they take out hamburgers and sell them at night or give them away for favors. Like there were guys who for two bucks would clean your room for room inspection, move the beds out, wash and wax the floors. They might do it for free in exchange for a hamburger. But it wasn’t any big deal, it wasn’t like Lexington. We heard a rumor that at Lexington guys were tryin’ to make big money, selling hamburgers for a buck and a half.

“You hear rumors about other places because you get guys passing through. There’s a bus that makes the circuit of federal prisons, moving guys. Maybe they’re transporting a guy from the MCC [in Chicago] to Duluth; they might bring him here for a night on the way. Guys who are inside for a long time, Tuesday and Thursday were big days because their codefendants might come through, they get the news from other places. So much gossip goes on. Gossip and rumor prevail in the camp.

“No matter how decent the living accommodations it’s still prison. You know that if your father has a heart attack and dies, you won’t get out even to go to the funeral. If your kid falls down and breaks a leg you can’t be there to comfort him. When you first get there, you want to have visits every weekend, and then three o’clock rolls around on Sunday and they have to leave, and that separation is so hard, you realize that it’s harder even than not seeing them. Sunday nights are very depressing times there. After a while you say, ‘Make it every other week’ or ‘every three weeks,’ and guys who are there longer stretch it out even more.

“You get close to guys inside. You exchange addresses and you say you’ll see each other outside. But when you get out, you don’t want to associate with them. I don’t even want to think about my life there anymore.”

The second inmate I interviewed had spent time at both Duluth and Oxford for drug-related offenses. He also requested anonymity.

“Oxford was heaven compared to Duluth. Just the size has a lot to do with it. Duluth had 800-some guys. Oxford had 150 to 170. At one time it was said that Duluth was great, ‘They got a bowling alley, handball, racquetball.’ There is more to do there, but it’s so overcrowded it’s hard to do anything. Like bowling–how you gonna bowl when there’s 800 guys? At Oxford, we had almost unlimited access to phones; you had to call collect, and the calls were monitored, but at Duluth you had only 15 minutes a day, 18 phones for 800 guys. Some guys, all they did in their spare time was worry about making a call. You could spend an hour, hour and a half, waiting in line.

“Oxford was as tame as you could get. Most of the long-sentence people at Oxford were judges and lawyers, and the others were doing maybe 12 months to two years, so they weren’t going to mess up. There’s a little stealing once in a while, but most of the guys were pretty good. There’s not too many hard core of anything there. But in Duluth you had a lot of D.C. blacks, because Washington is under federal jurisdiction. They can be in for anything. They fight all the time. There were a lot of hard-core drug people there, a lot of mafia. At Oxford, you had a few guys who would use drugs, smuggle it in, but in Duluth there was stuff all over the place. It was like a corner drugstore. And there were shakedowns, you had to stay out of certain people’s way. At Oxford, security was minimal, but it was starting to tighten up when I left, probably due to a change of warden at the main institution and because a few people were caught doing a couple different things. Policy changes quickly.

“Your first two, three weeks inside you don’t know where you’re at. You live with hope that the parole board will release you, that you’ll get out on a rule 35. [Under the provisions of rule 35, an inmate can petition to have his sentence reduced; basically the rule constitutes a last-ditch plea for mercy that occurs within 120 days of sentencing.] None of that works, but you don’t know that. You live with the thought that you’re gonna get your sentence cut. When all that doesn’t go through, you crash. You know you’re gonna do so many years.

“We started a class there for incoming inmates on how to get adjusted, what to expect at that institution, what to look for in parole, how to approach rule 35. Most of the defense attorneys don’t tell them that the parole board is a joke. A lot of them get better advice in jail. A guy comes in with a three-year sentence, and he thinks he’s gonna do a year. Well, what are your guidelines? You look at the guidelines and you can see he’s gonna do maybe 24 months. A lot of these guys had no idea. They’re telling their families they’ll be in for a year and now it’s twice that. One guy on the softball team, he thought he’d be out in a year. It looked to me like it would be double that. And his wife starts seeing another guy.

“Some of the minds at Oxford are unbelievable. There’s more intelligence there than in probably any three counties in Wisconsin. You can have a question on stocks, bonds, law, medicine, there’s somebody who knows the answer. You got carpenters, tradesmen. You can’t believe the guys who are there. It’s too bad they can’t harness some of that. Some of those people could come up with some great things. Instead, the system just wants punishment. Maybe it’s right, I don’t know. I just think that if you do something wrong, you owe something back and most of these guys are willing to do it. That’s the shame of it. They’d do anything you want. If there was a bridge washed out, guys could put it back together. We offered to go into a high school and do a symposium on drug abuse. They wouldn’t let us. Who knows better than us? And these people were very learned people, they could get a point across to some of these kids. They wouldn’t let us do it.

“We had some parties for underprivileged kids. We used to have these religious furloughs–you go and fix up low-income homes in Milwaukee–but then the new warden stopped it. It wasn’t like you were turned loose on Milwaukee. Some church or religious group had to sponsor you, you had to stay with a family, and the only ones who were eligible to do it were guys who were about to get out anyway. [Stewart says that the program and others like it raised liability questions (in the event of injury on the job, who is responsible?), and so those programs have been suspended by the Bureau of Prisons.]

“Stewart is not a bad guy. He had an open-door policy, and to some extent he recognized the level of the people there. You might not get what you wanted, but at least he listened to your point of view. He’s pretty understanding and fair within the system itself, but the system itself is no good.

“What the U.S. attorney wants is not cooperation. They don’t want to know what you know, they want to browbeat you into making their case for them against someone else. They wanted me to say what this guy was thinking. I said, ‘I can’t say this about the guy, I really don’t know.’ I saw people who testified in my case, they had given a written statement that said little or nothing, were threatened by the prosecutor and ended up saying what he wanted them to say. They want to put everyone away. But those people are gonna get out, and we will have shown them no mercy, and that will come back to haunt us. That guy who walked away from Oxford, he was a Colombian serving a ten-year sentence. Then they give him another and wonder why he left.

“When you get there, it looks like you can last, like maybe you can hold a family together, but once you hit two years, it’s gone. I knew so many people whose families left them. Wife left. Every day. Countless. We had classes in basic marital problems. It started at basic, how to relate, how to communicate, and it went all the way down to if you get served with divorce papers, what do you do?

“Some of the guys, when they get out, will definitely go back into crime. The system takes everything away before you go in, leaves you a pauper. You spend your time in jail and it’s hard to learn a trade in there. You come out and you are what you were when you went in. Maybe you’re better read. We organized some get-your-head-together courses. Because when you come out, nobody is gonna hire you. Some guys would leave, they’d saved two, three, four grand. How long is that gonna last? Some of the guys get out and they haven’t saved a dime. We had some wealthier people from Chicago, they had a little money, so it might be easier for them to hold it together. The mafia people in Duluth, some of them were millionaires whose families were taken care of. Most others, the government had broken them. The main question is do you put down on the application that you were in prison? A guy who is in for four or five years has to, but we say on the initial resume not to put it down. You’ve got to get the first interview so they see you’re a decent guy. Most times if you don’t have a friend who will hire you, you can’t find a job.

“Inside, everybody thinks they got screwed. Everybody thinks they got eaten up by the system. You can’t dwell on it. You can die in there or you can try to make something of it. The guilt can take over, but I just never allowed it to happen. There was not a night I had free. I played everything. I read four or five books a week. I sent out for a correspondence course. Nobody committed suicide when I was there. They’d just sleep their life away. Just almost die. Lay there day after day. They have a psychologist. He’s no help. And when you get out there’s no help. The halfway house is a dump. I wouldn’t room and board my dog there. In my halfway house, a lot of people who’d been away from drugs for years went back to them immediately.

“A lot of guys are more open on the inside. A lot of times there’s nobody at home anymore so they have nobody else to talk to. Some of the people were extraordinary. There’s moments I’ll never forget, special times, a real closeness. You really come to grips with yourself and what’s important in your life.

“The worst thing for me was the guilt that I had to live with daily about what I did to my children, the ridicule they had to face alone, everything they had to endure without me.

“The best thing was that the priorities in my life are finally in order. Money is not the number-one priority. My family comes first. My God is primary in my life.

“I don’t think that Oxford is the country club that it is portrayed to be in the Tribune. I don’t think that when you’re confined you can compare it to a country club. Your self-esteem is gone. No one wants to sleep 24 hours a day or play catch with a softball when you’re 40 years old. It’s a nice brick building, a reasonable facility. It’s comfortable in that you aren’t getting beaten or raped. But try to live there. The problem with the news coverage is that they always portray it aesthetically. They overlook the fact that the guy’s life is destroyed. Sometimes living in a nice brick jail or an old wooden one doesn’t matter. You go through your own hell no matter where you are.

“When you finally get out, until the minute you get out down the road, you don’t believe you’re gonna go. I don’t know how to explain it. It drives you crazy to think about it, you’re afraid they’ll take it away. You live with a lot of rejections, you don’t get anything, no breaks, you’re due for a furlough and they cancel it, so you get conditioned to that. You get very pessimistic.

“They take you to town in a van. I was numb. I figured everyone knew where I came from. You’re kind of lost, scared to death you’re gonna miss this bus. You’ve been living a very regimented life, you’ve got to be everywhere on time in prison, so you think if you’re late, they’ll take you back. I wouldn’t put the ticket in my pocket because I was afraid I would lose it.

“You want to eat something because you haven’t had outside food, but you don’t know what to eat first. Everything looks different, everything–the trees, the town–you don’t see anything like that, you forget. You’re standing in this little town at a combination bus station, gas station, restaurant, coffee shop, convenience store, and I kept checking to make sure I had the right ticket. The bus is late and I’m scared.

“You can’t wait to see your family and your home, but you don’t know about other people. You’re afraid to see certain people. You think you can’t blend in anymore. I think it’s best to go somewhere else and start over. It takes a long time to accept yourself. I don’t know if you really ever do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.