June 2, 2013
Sunday, 6:00 p.m.
Letter #280: Tom’s Story
A lot of changes arrived for me this week. I’ve intentionally chosen cellmates who are “short-termers”—those who weren’t sentenced to much time—or those who in prison lingo are “short to the house”—those who don’t have much time left in prison. I’ve enjoyed the process of helping prepare them for life beyond prison, and it is exciting for me to see someone I care about complete their incarceration experience. Now, yet another of my cellies—the fourth in a year-and-a-half—headed back to California, on his way home.
Tom has nearly completed twelve years in prison. Unlike the vast majority of prisoners, he’s served his time for a crime he didn’t commit. Many cases are “over-charged” (remember my cellie, Ronnie, serving his first prison term ever for punching a man twice and taking his cellphone? 20 years … ), but not many have no substance whatsoever. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be wrongfully convicted, but Tom does. And worse, he faced near-complete rejection by his family.
Though recent cellies have had varying lengths of time served (3–12 years), they’ve each shared the unfortunate trait of being virtually alone. Two of the four lost their mothers while incarcerated, and each had only one or two living relatives who still cared to be in a relationship with them. This makes returning to society that much more uncertain and heightens the anxiety many feel.
My plan with Tom wasn’t so much to train him in some marketable skills, help him with time management, or assist him in building his network of friends and acquaintances. With Tom, so jaded by a lifetime of tragedies stretching back to his childhood, I was simply an encourager and motivator. The pessimist in him butted heads with the optimist in me as I tried to help him visualize his future. At age 55, Tom was fairly set in his ways, but everyone needs a bit of hope, so I tried my best to help him see where he could continue to bless others and develop himself while here.
Tom was an incredible cellie whose whole life was all about serving the underprivileged in society in many parts of the globe. I only hope that his personal prison tragedy won’t dissuade him from being who he was and doing the humanitarian work he always loved.
The leaving process is interesting, a mix of stress and excitement, tempered by the vast quantity of unknowns: housing, job, technology, society, family, etc. I helped Tom apply for and receive a scholarship to complete his Master’s Degree at San Francisco State University, so I hope he’s able to reclaim his final years in a meaningful fashion.
We celebrated his departure with an epic last supper of sorts, without all the reclining on each other. Tom is an amazing cook, so he made a fantastic Indian curry dish with spices sent in from a quarterly package. Packing up his guitar so it would survive the long bus trip and choosing what to bring with him and what to leave behind took all day, then we waited for the knock at the door to escort him out.
We hugged, and he gave me a letter* for me to read after he’d left, which I knew would say the things he found difficult to say in person. He will be missed, though I hope to hear about the good things he’ll do in the future. This process reminds me to make the most of the relationships we have here, while people are still with us. Say what needs to be said. Hug who needs to be hugged.
*This is the letter my cellie, Tom, gave me to read as he left to go back home to California, pending his parole in August. I thought it may interest you, since you pray for me to be a blessing to others. In most cases, we never get to know if our labor is in vain or not. I thank God, who knows I could use the encouragement of seeing some fruit every once in a while, so I pass it on to you. Thank you for praying!
May this letter find you bright and cheery this fine day. To my great consternation, I’ll be unable to physically partake in the celebration of your birthday, however, I’ll be present in spirit, for I will be sending you beams of congratulatory love and happiness (we people from Berkeley can do such things!).
I am sorry for all the times I was short in showing my appreciation for all the acts of kindness and service that you extended towards me. I do realize that with all of my life trauma, I have trouble directly expressing gratitude. Do know, however, that when a person takes root in my heart they are there to stay. You, Christopher, hold a place in the center of the garden of my heart.
Thank you for all the help with my church group, the public speaking class, your business classes, and my personal issues. Also, thank you for putting up with all my idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and special needs. Thank you also for letting me get the sleep I needed—that meant a lot to me; I’ve struggled with sleep for 11 years.
I will do my best to help others when I am out. You revived the flame in me to be a man of good works, no matter the difficulties. You also helped me to soften the edges of my heart that were becoming hardened towards people like Rudy and Derek.
Due to the volatility of my situation, it would be irresponsible for me to make any promises that I can’t keep, however, I do plan on staying in touch with you in the capacities that I am able. As you probably understand through all our talks, I am not someone who forgets friends.
Keep your head up and your heart healthy—you will continually come across people that you can help and others that can enrich your life. With this, I’ll close by wishing you a joyous birthday!
*Update: Tom nearly finished his five years of parole and had become quite successful in language and culture training services for large corporations. Then, he was re-arrested and sentenced to more than 100 years. As of late 2019, he is appealing his case while yet again teaching behind bars.