I had an insanely demanding day yesterday and wasn’t able to read Richard’s text until this morning after gobbling a bowl of cereal over my morning scripture. It was 4 a.m. when I finally read it. In the text, he related how he had reluctantly picked up a hitchhiker on a cold Anchorage morning. The hitchhiker was visibly subdued as he got into Richard’s van, and he had a sad story to tell. What he disclosed was enough to make anyone take a step back:
So I swung the van back around to pick up this hitchhiker, who didn’t look as though he was having much luck. He told me he had just gotten back to Alaska from Washington State and that he had been gone away in prison for 19 years. We talked and swapped stories about Anchorage and eventually got around to talking about high schools. I told him I graduated from West High in 1986. He said that he should have graduated in 1985 but McLaughlin Youth Center [Alaska’s largest juvenile corrections facility] ruined it.
“My ears were pricked up; he definitely had my attention now. This wayfaring vagabond told me his sad tale, and right before he got out of my van, he stuck his hand out and thanked me. Introductions at last… Tyrone H—-.
My jaw hit the floor when I read the name at the end of Richard’s text. Richard and I had done a stint in McLaughlin Youth Center with Tyrone many years ago. I had long ago forgotten his name. Now he was a grown man in his forties, just emerging from a 19-year prison sentence.
I thought about three troubled teenage boys nearly thirty years ago, full of anger and bewilderment, emotions and hormones easily overtaking our shaky grasp of life principles. We scarcely understood the meaning of our juvenile crimes, let alone the reasons we had committed them. This was an opportunity for the three of us to mend our ways before the world started handing us serious consequences. Richard and I managed to find our way out of the maladjusted snarl we had stumbled into. Tyrone didn’t.
Richard and I met in January of 1983, when we were 15 years old. We had both been inducted into Alaska’s Juvenile Corrections system for small-time villainous conduct. I admired Richard for his intellect, humor and his independent mind. We both carried a robust bravado that concealed a profusion of inner turmoil. If we had persisted in our disagreeable ways, our lives would have turned out dark and lonely, buried in regret.
It took some years for each of us to straighten out and find civilized ways of getting our needs and desires met. It didn’t happen when we were 15, or 25 for that matter. In 1983, we were in a light-fare juvenile program for mildly wayward young men called Adventure House. It was minimum security; any kid could walk right out the front door if he wanted to. Some did. Richard and I didn’t, but the inner struggles we faced were too great to be turned around by the gentle structure of Adventure House. We were like those deep water fish that blow up if they are brought too close to the surface. We both continued running afoul of society’s boundaries with such reckless disregard for authority that we ended up in the place where the worst juvenile offenders go: Closed Treatment Unit (CTU), a subset of McLaughlin Youth Center. We were each sent there, not because our crimes were serious but because we were profoundly troubled. It was a mercy that we came there, though at the time it seemed society had thrown us away.
CTU was a military school that looked like the inside of a prison. When you walked into the unit, you saw nothing but a bank of cells. The days were filled with exhausting physical exercise, year-round schooling and demanding program activities. The staff were ruthless in confronting manipulation and anti-social behavior. The pride of many rebels was crushed in that place, where nothing was left to distract the teenager from his self-made mess. The counselors were educated and well trained. The hope was that, little by little, the light of knowledge and sanity would come in and break up the darkness inside us, which we didn’t understand.
Richard and I held on to some of our peccadilloes: we called the place Closed Torture Unit and shared laughter at the expense of the staff in hushed conversations. We broke minor rules and kept things light by thinking of ourselves as people who were a bit too healthy for such a somber environment. But on a deeper level, we both knew we were there for a reason. We began to see what had been happening to us in our young lives and chose light instead of darkness, though it meant painful probing in the counseling sessions, the shock of self-disclosure—the Herculean effort required to change. We were set on a different road, almost by sheer external force, so intense was this program. But to the degree that we chose right over wrong, we began placing our feet on the path to health and freedom, little knowing that the grueling experience at CTU was only the beginning. Ahead of us was a lifelong process of adjustment. Many years later, I realized that what I was exposed to at CTU was the first murky rays of God’s light of truth shining into my life.
Richard and I have both fought battles with drug addiction, alcoholism and various flavors of self-destructive compulsivity. We both acknowledge God in our lives and see the inherent danger in the self-will that almost destroyed us as youths. And we pine for more—more stability, more health, more fulfillment in life.
Sometimes we find appreciation through contrast, when our proportionate blessings are seen against foils—the lives of less fortunate people. (If only others didn’t have to suffer in order for us to have an understanding of our comparative station. And yet, each of us chooses his own path.) Tyrone is such a foil. When I put my story together with his, I feel immensely grateful I was able to avoid the road he ended up on, which I shudder to think about.
Nineteen years! Almost two decades—a very long time indeed. I think of the blessings I have enjoyed over the last 19 years: delicious dinners with family members, invigorating university class lectures, great movies, dates with lovely ladies, heartfelt talks with trusted friends, bicycle rides in the sunshine—the list is almost endless. I have complained bitterly at times because I thought I was living a “B” life. But I am rich!
Tyrone, on the other hand, had to live in a concrete box for 228 months—6,935 days of eating dismal food, watching Maury Povitch and jockeying for space with violent, angry, hopeless people, many of whom will never breathe free air again. I hope he had friends and family members who still loved and cared for him, that he received letters and packages to brighten his days. Even if he did, I can’t quite wrap my mind around 19 consecutive birthdays in prison. What did he feel when he saw beautiful women on television, or coming to visit other inmates? What was it like to see people come and go year after year, listening to stories of life on the outside, while he languished in confinement for such a long time? What a strange blend of joy and revulsion he must have experienced when he looked at photographs of family members enjoying Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas gatherings, picnics and frolics at the beach!
Surely every prison inmate is a walking lesson on human waywardness. There is nothing inside “them” that can’t be found in every one of us — a great breach between the good we desire and the failure that is our collective lot. The Bible calls it our fallen nature. William Golding referred to it as a “defect” in his disturbing book The Lord of the Flies, in which a group of adolescent boys is stranded on a deserted island and, left to their own inclinations, form factions and become would-be murderers. They are, in fact, engaged in a senseless manhunt when they are interrupted by an adult rescue team that has discovered their whereabouts. Whatever we call it, every person is driven (at least in part) by irrational impulses. This is true even of those who fight tooth and nail to bring about a better outcome.
When I read Richard’s text, I realized that I could easily have wound up in the shoes of our old comrade from McLaughlin Youth Center. I have made more than my share of poor choices in my life. I went through violent and bewildering experiences as a small child which put me into a posture of defense against the entire world, and I lived like a hermit for many years in spite of having decent people around me. I had the classic paradigm of the victim, shared by 2.3 million prison inmates all over America.
Why am I out here while so many are caged like animals? Given my history, the odds were that I would end up living an institutional life. Society has little choice but to confine those who cannot overcome their base drives and toxic emotions. Of course, I had advantages Tyrone may not have had—upbringing, environment moments of clarity along the way. But I had no say in any of these. In the final analysis, God’s grace is the decisive factor that separates the prison inmate from the successful surgeon. To put it in a more personal way, Christ the Savior chose me before the creation of the world to become one of his own. I will thank him for all eternity.