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Small Miracles

A Change in Outlook             

        My stretch in a Mexican jail was just like the film Midnight Express. There were ancient stone walls and windowless gun towers, one hundred ten men in each sweltering building with an eight-inch hole in the cement for a toilet, a pipe with running water for a shower. Each building contained its own separate shantytown. An aisle ran the length of each building, and on either side were the plywood and cardboard shacks—“houses” for the “rich”—while in the aisle, the “buffaloes” roamed, the down-and-out who paced all day and slept at night wherever they stopped.

        There was no yard to speak of, only a cement patio called a loma fronting the cellblocks, so crowded at rec hours one could scarcely move. No gym, no weight pile, no track or ball field, and one telephone for nearly a thousand men, an old metal hotel phone with no dial, incoming calls only. Should a man’s luck run out—the dreaded medical emergency—there was a small clinic with one nurse.

        But in Mexico, I had conjugal visits. I could wear my own clothes, cook what I wanted, move freely throughout the prison without the humiliation of pat-searches and strip-outs. When money arrived, my fall-partner and I built a plywood house on stilts, above the fray. We installed a swamp cooler, built wooden bunks, bought a TV and a stereo and an ice cooler for the occasional beer we could score from the guards. We hired a cook and a laundry man and paid a trustee to run errands between cell houses during lock-up. Everything from tacos to toilet paper was sold at the prison store; for anything else, there were kids with bikes outside the front gate who would shop at the local mercado or any restaurant in town. A man could buy food, clothing, lumber, art supplies, appliances, drugs, booze, and even prostitutes, for the right price. But nothing I could buy could change the loathing I felt. I wanted out.

        Mexico showed me the worst: it was crowded and filthy and dangerous, much like my thinking.  True, I was allowed to keep my identity, but it was an identity that was poisonous, and it took this long stretch of psychological deprivation in the U.S. to provide the ultimate wake-up call, the ontological slap in the face. The direction was clear: freedom was not out there; it was in here, in my head. What I had been yearning for all along was not a change in location but a change in outlook. I reasoned that, if I changed, the world would reflect that change, and it has.

J.C. Amberchele
Canon City, CC

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