Alex Saved Me
I remember when Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, wrote an article in GQ about his shopping addiction. Eighty-one leather jackets (including a Gucci ostrich skin for $13,900), 75 pairs of boots, $5600 leather pants – you get it.
I had gone to college with Buzz and he'd been the editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian - our college paper. Everyone looked up to him - including me.
Recently, he'd been plagued by his shopping - a $600,000 binge.
My friends snickered. Here was a successful, sixtyish guy admitting to a habit that one expected of some Manolo-shopping trophy wife. What if he hadn't had the money to shop - would he have stolen them?
With me, his actions hit a different cord. I felt he was talking about getting to that point in your life when you are set—you’ve hit some of your career goals, know you’re tumbling down the other side of success mountain and your age shows—face, neck, all over—no matter how hard you work to stay young; and you’ve settled into a relationship with your spouse that would be too expensive and complicated to end, even if there are days when you wake up thinking, him? Put another way, the early struggles are over, but the Big Adventures may be too. And you think, So now what?
By the time we’d reached that place, my husband and I had had sex approximately 2200 times. If there were any exciting positions left, we didn’t know them.
But maybe that wasn’t the point.
When I was in my twenties, a friend told me to marry the person I wanted to talk to at the kitchen table at 3 a.m. – someone whose mind interested me because the rest fades. I took that advice. For years I came home with stories, almost like little presents, lunch with some B-List celebrity, jacking up a corporate big-wig for a decent paycheck…or even saying something stupid to fill the evening air.
By mid-life, my husband had heard all my stories, and I’d heard his. In fact, he’d barely listened, knowing he could fake a response while never taking his eyes off the ball game on TV. I think he’d gotten it down to three phrases. (“No way.” “Really?” “Great!”) He used the third after I told him I’d been fired.
Outside marriage, life was “fine.” We owned a house with a reasonable mortgage; I had enough work not to worry (too much) about money. In other words, like Bissinger, I could have gone to a dark place to fill my life because I was bored and am not without my own vices (wine, gossip, if there’s a Valium in the vicinity, I will find it.)
Then one night, a friend and I were discussing a prison program where professors from Yale, MIT, and other colleges teach a small, elite group of inmates subjects like calculus and Transcendentalism. Volunteers were needed to help students write their thesis papers.
I am not a do-gooder by any stretch; in fact, close friends and family would call me a shit-stirrer. But I was curious: What went on behind those high prison walls wrapped in concertina wire? Who was there? This was one of the few worlds I’d never managed to get a good sniff of.
This volunteer program was so tony I couldn’t even get hired to work for free without a connection. But one of the few benefits of middle age is that you can always scrabble one up. I did, and after an interview, found myself at a maximum security prison, like Attica, where the violent criminals are housed. I met my students in a simple cinderblock classroom: some 14 black and Latino guys convicted of murder, robbery, assault, drug dealing. I am thin, white, and was raised in a nice Philadelphia suburb; if ever I had told myself I was “colorblind,” I now realized I’d been full of shit.
I was expected to help guys who hadn’t been past 8th grade with grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Though well educated, I’m a terrible speller and can never remember certain grammar rules. (Affect? Effect?) But I did my best, and we got through the first night.
When I got home, my husband was standing in the driveway waiting. I would have waited for him too if he’d spent the evening chatting with murderers, but still, it was nice. Inside, I told him how I’d been a little freaked out with all these guys waving their papers at me, until one of them, Alex—a 31-year-old former gang member on year-ten of a 14-year sentence for manslaughter—began organizing the men. Alex was Dominican with brown eyes and a soft but commanding voice. If not for his green prison scrubs, I told my husband, I would have assumed he was a TA from one of the elite colleges, because the guys immediately deferred to him.
After that, I went to the prison once a week. It took 20 minutes to drive there, and 25 to get to the tutoring room: metal detector, hand stamped, ID checked, then the walk down the long, dark, maze-like tunnels, escorted by a guard with a billy club. The prisoners marched on one side, tight single file. We walked on the other. Sometimes the guard stopped to talk to one of the inmates—invariably a Mafia hitman or some Important Bad Guy, the guard would tell me afterwards. I could tell he was proud of this relationship. (Later, Alex would tell me that the guys who committed the most despicable crimes got the most respect. You can imagine what they thought of the geeky prison students.)
At the final checkpoint, there was a blocky blond guard with a military crew cut who loved to lecture me. “Why waste your time with these guys?” he’d say, every week. “If they get out, they just end up right back here. Why not help a good person?” One time, he made me wait as he checked off the prisoners coming up for educational courses, AA, religious meetings. He’d tell an inmate that his name wasn’t on the list, even though I could see it. “Back to the cell,” he’d say. “Try again next week.” Then he’d smirk. The prisoners left fast, because the wrong look or words could land them in solitary confinement, or “the Box.” The backyard bully had found his perfect job.
Quickly, the inmates moved out of a blur and I got to know them and their situations. Jake, a gangly man with a huge laugh, was in for life. Three strikes—the first, he told me, in 5th grade when he brought a water pistol to the playground that the teachers thought was a gun. (No mother around to explain.) Mow-mow, a short bouncy 22-year-old, talked about his grandmother’s big house down south, about how he wanted to set up a school when he got out – in 20 years. Alex was in for 14, because, he told me, he’d been on the street with a friend from his crew when the guy shot and killed a man. If he’d turned states evidence—testified as a witness for the state, or snitched against his friend—he could have had a much-reduced sentence…and would probably be dead on the street a week later. He chose the time.
As a middle-class white woman, I knew I’d probably never wind up in prison for being with a friend who shot someone. Or for three strikes that started with a water pistol. (In fact, if you are a white female there is about a one in a hundred chance you’ll go to jail; for a black man, the chances are one in three.) Every week driving home, I’d realize how lucky I was. My sagging boobs and receding career now felt like ridiculous problems.
Selfishly, I was happy Alex was there too. He made deeply gifted arguments and loved language, often sneaking words like “sesquipedalian” and “palimpsest” into his papers, just to see if I knew what they meant. As the Yale philosophy professor who worked in the program told me, he was the ideal mix of “a brilliant and creative thinker with real scholarly potential.”
* * *
My husband now waited each week to hear my report. One night, the guys had prepared five-minute speeches on contemporary topics. Mow-mow talked about the word “nigger,” and there was a heated debate about whether or not it should be used. “Can I ever use it?” I asked, meaning “I” as a white person who heard the word tossed around by these guys, rappers, comedians. “Only if you’re in a crew,” Mow-mow said. “And then never when your crew meets another.”
Jamel, a thin guy with elegant hands and long dreads, talked about the Periodic Table. Before its discovery, he said, we wouldn’t have been able to understand global warming or what happens from fracking because we couldn’t know the science behind how it worked. Now we can—yet many people get their information from politicians who don’t know the science. Alex talked about the value of owning Webster’s Dictionary – especially if you’re brought up in a place like the South Bronx, where you kick crack vials aside to get out of your apartment and school consists of the teachers ducking spit balls.
When they finished, they looked at me. “Your turn, Cynthia,” someone said. I thought about it for a second: the prison wanted tutors to maintain distance because of the trouble that could ensue. But how could I teach them unless I connected with them? I also realized these guys were learning from me partly because they trusted me for exactly that reason: I did care. In return, they were teaching me about a parallel universe I hadn’t known existed: about the difference between “gangs” and “crews,” which gang ran Rikers now, and why you had to join a gang in prison—because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have protection and could get killed. (Recently, inmates at Rikers have said it is more dangerous there than on the streets.)
I decided to break the rule about distance and connection that night. I stood up and gave a 5-minute speech about my own struggles: my lifelong insecurity, my fears about my intelligence and whether I could make it with those voices in my head screaming, “You’re stupid!” I knew it wasn’t anything like the shit they’d been through. But it was true and heartfelt and painful, and it was what I had.
They were fascinated. How could this well-dressed white chick have problems? But we were finding our common humanity: we were all fragile, mortal, frightened of having no talent and trying to figure out how to make a decent life in this world. “You guys are behind these walls for a long time,” I told them, “so I know you have stories, real stories about how you got here. Start writing them down so people like me can learn from you.”
As I left that night, the guys said, “Be safe.” No one had ever said that to me before, because I’d never needed that kind of good-bye. But they said it every time I left.
* * *
Outside the prison, I did editorial consulting, maintained a yoga website, and continued with the occasional magazine assignments that had been my bread-and-butter for years. But my colleagues and I had reached the age where many of us were simply pushing our career markers around the journalism chessboard trying to stay employed until someone younger and cheaper knocked us off. Now, though, I found that all this didn’t sting as much, because I was a riding an exciting new horse.
The things I talked to my friends about were changing, too. It was no longer the crinkling of our under-eye skin, or how much – if any – sex this or that married couple was having, or who we looked down on because they’d just sucked their way to the top of some masthead. (We were too proud to admit our real feelings: envy.) Now, I grilled my friends about whether they’d read The New Jim Crow so they could learn about why people like Alex were in prison, or if they knew that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners – more than any other country. When a well-known comic writer told me she was bragging about my new prison work, my heart swelled. Unlike other parts of the body, it seems the ego never dries up. I was alive again, curious and motivated.
One night – about two months before the program inmates were supposed to graduate and move to a better facility with bigger cells, far fewer brawls, and less supervision—I got to class and noticed that Alex wasn’t there. Huh, I thought. He’d only missed once or twice in three semesters, because he loved a good conversation —whether about Victor Frankl’s, A Man’s Search for Meaning or his own favorite story, Plato’s The Cave. (I had tried to read it but couldn’t get through it.)
This particular night, the guys were strangely subdued. When I pressed, I learned, through whispers, that Alex had been sent to the Box, and they thought he’d be there for a year—a year!—because an anonymous note had been slipped to the guards from a prisoner saying that if they checked, they’d find contraband in Alex’s cell: a handcuff key, which ostensibly could be used to escape. Even worse, the guards wanted to extend his sentence.
I was stunned. And then I thought, wait—Alex? Ten years in prison and he hadn’t gotten a single disciplinary infraction—almost unheard of—and he was the best student in the program, with a 4.0 average. It was ludicrous to think he’d risk hiding a key in his cell when he was so close to getting out. Even more ridiculous - how does a tiny key get you out of a Max A prison.
I soon learned that getting framed inside is common. A member of his former gang probably set him up, Jah told me, someone pissed that Alex quit his gang and became a student. His former buddies were jealous and angry he was going to a better place. They'd show him - the gang had a long arm.
The next morning, I called the volunteer program supervisor and asked what we should do.
“Nothing,” she said. “It’s happened before and it will happen again.”
My heart dropped. “But he got into this fix because he was one of our students!”
“It’s a very tough tightrope we walk,” she replied, and explained that if we didn’t follow prison rules, we could jeopardize the program.
I shook my head. “Just how far does your ‘look away policy’ extend?” I asked, using the term I’d heard during the recent Rikers’ Island horror: no one had spoken up when they saw guards beating kids, breaking elderly prisoners arms for minor infractions… they were taught to look away.
She was silent.
I hung up freaked out and confused. If I stood up for what I knew was right, I would not only lose this thing I loved doing, but possibly imperil this program that been featured on 60 Minutes and in the New Yorker because it did so much for a select group of prisoners. Yet if I didn’t say anything, Alex could lose not only his chance for parole, but possibly his mind. A United Nations expert had called on all countries to ban Solitary, which he considered torture and which has been shown to cause lasting mental damage after a few days - let alone a year.
What should I do?
Who was I?
I thought of a Yeats poem I loved:
“Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."
An hour later, I picked up the phone. First I called The Innocence Project. Then the ACLU. Then a few lefty lawyers I knew. People listened, then gave me numbers of criminal lawyers and even ex-cons who might help.
One former inmate who had actually escaped from the prison I taught in told me you don’t do it with a key, but by bribing the guards. (They had let him escape, for a fee, when he was being taken to the dentist. Two years later, he was found in his apartment and brought back to serve his time.) Now a private detective, he told me that Alex would have an in-house hearing (no lawyer), and be tried by his prison employees. To me, that sounded like he was screwed.
It was important, I learned, to have a lawyer write to the prison and let them know there were people out there paying attention. After talking to a few more who agreed to take the case for $20,000 - $40,000, I called everyone I knew, raised the money, and put together my own killer team: Norah Hart, a close friend, a woman who worked for an innocence project and an NYU law professor—all women—who worked practically for free to try to get justice for Alex. Sunflower, Alex's sister, was the non-legal member of the team. She did everything she could to let him know he was loved and not to give up hope. She was our heart.
Predictably, I was fired from my job when someone I contacted called the program to ask if “what Cynthia Kling said” was true. I then received a letter from the prison’s Superintendent saying I was barred from the prison “effective immediately,” because I had been accused of breaking guideline #11: “Care should be taken to avoid becoming emotionally involved with inmates.” And I would be investigated because I had “commenced a personal relationship with an inmate.” Following that came a request from a prison investigator that I “provide a written copy of the events surrounding this.” A DA told me this was a legal maneuver, called a "slut slap" meant to embarrass me and keep me quiet. I was considered a threat even talking about what happened inside.
When I told a good friend, she laughed and said, “That’s great Kling! You’re still in the game.” But for me, the “game” was no longer something I was doing for excitement or fun—though there were funny moments. Alex, confined to the The Box, the size of a small closet, had no idea what I was doing - or whether his family even knew what had happened to him. Then one day, after about two months, he was escorted from the Box and over to meet a blond stranger, a lawyer in her 40s. It was Norah. When she told him who she was and why she was there, Alex told her he "had no words." That made me laugh. I don't think he'd ever been speechless in his life before that moment.
The lawyers and I worked hard, but there were always setbacks. It was another dark day when Norah and I drove seven hours to see Alex at the prison where he’d been transferred. On the Canadian border, it was nicknamed “The Human Kennel.”
I was worried about his mental state, especially because he was being double-bunked here, in the tiny, isolated room—something that happens often in “Solitary,” despite the name. Violent inmates tend to fight in the claustrophobic spaces—who wouldn’t? (Imagine being locked in the bathroom with an angry stranger for five years.) And I’d heard that Alex was in with a guy who’d been there ten years, was mentally deranged, and had had about 400 “roommates.”
When Norah and I got there, the guard wound us through the hallways, telling us how dangerous these inmates were - people like Joel Steinberg, who’d beaten his six-year-old daughter to death. We arrived in a room filled with thick plexiglass boxes. There was Alex, sitting behind a partition with a two-inch opening at the bottom. He held his hands down so we wouldn’t see his arm and leg irons. I saw them anyway. I also saw that he was impossibly skinny.
But despite my horror, he was the same thoughtful Alex. When I asked about his bunk-mate, it was clear he was sympathetic to this poor man, someone in obvious need of psychiatric help who’d been dragged from cell to cell and would probably die alone in one of their cages.
A guard brought over Alex’s lunch: two shriveled slabs of white bread with a plastic cup of haz-mat orange glop they called tuna fish. (Lawsuits have started in several states over the hideous quality of prison food.) Norah and I got potato chips and candy out of the machines. Even that we weren’t allowed to give Alex.
Driving home, I thought of his emaciated face, the deep circles under his eyes, and I felt anew that I was doing the right thing. I was exposing an egregious wrong that would not be swept under the rug on my watch, and helping save a young man’s life in the process. And maybe, in my small way, I could help save some other lives, too. I could make a difference. Me and my wrinkles and my past-its-prime married sex life…none of that mattered now. My life wasn’t so much about me anymore. It felt glorious.
And yet, this all also was about me, at least in part. Because if I hadn’t been middle-aged and bored and jaded, if my ladder hadn’t been gone—and if I hadn’t had the wisdom and compassion of my years, the lack of caring so much about my career future combined with the drive to stay in the game that is life—all of it acquired from years of success and of failure, from having been young but not being young anymore—I would not be doing this. I wouldn’t have wanted to, and I wouldn’t have known how. It was exactly the state of having nothing left to lose that had given me, once more, everything to gain.
* * *
That night, as usual, my husband was waiting when I drove up the driveway. He hugged me as I got out of the car and ushered me into our kitchen, handing me a bowl of soup. “Tell,” he commanded. And later, in the bedroom, it was different too. But really, things there had been changing all along in recent months. Before this, we’d become almost like brother and sister, caring but also carefully avoiding that huge elephant called married sex. But my new life fascinated him, and, in bed and out, he wanted to know and touch this person I was becoming. We weren’t rooting around for the old hormone-driven feelings, so much as connecting with each other in that deepest, most ancient human way. And while that isn’t the point I’ve been making all this time, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter.
So here’s the end of the story. After nine months of working every spare minute—making calls, writing letters, having meetings to get other people involved who also might help Alex—I asked my three lawyers to write to the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections to explain the situation. We also sent Alex’s 4.0 transcript from the college program. One of the lawyers said, why will they even look at our arguments, we're nobodies. That, was my job, I told her. Then I started calling his office every day. I made friends with his assistants and playing goofy Cindy would tell them I'd forgotten to fax this or that. I was disgustingly sweet, and I knew I would make them so sick of me that they'd force the Commissioner to read our material, if only to get me off their backs.
Two weeks later, the Commissioner dismissed all charges against Alex. His record was expunged, and he received a letter saying he was cleared of having contraband and was being moved back to the prison where he was headed when he was framed.
As for me, at the moment I’m still barred from returning to the prison where I taught. That’s all I’ll say—I don’t want to jeopardize anything—except for this: I feel lucky to find what I did under my fallen ladder; to find what really matters at this point in my life. And if I can’t ever go back to the old prison, or I get thrown out of the new one? There’s always another, and another after that. They can keep pushing me out, and I’ll keep coming back, until one day they just might have to wheel me out, blue hair flying.
P.S I wrote that essay last year. The real end of the story is that Alex got out of prison two weeks ago on November 23 - six months early for good behavior. But starting over will be tough, he went in when he was 20 years old. I would like to hire Alex to help with Transforming Lives, a prison program that he, his friend Clifton, and I started, to help all inmates - not just the 1% who got into the extremely selective program I worked for. It is a one-to-one mentorship program, through snail mail, so no inmate will get set up or punished for getting the rehabilitative support they need. So far over 35 inmates and 35 mentors have joined - and we have a waiting list. (Check around this site to read more about it.) If you would like to contribute, you can use the Paypal button (you will get a receipt from WESPAC my 501C3) or contact me and I will tell you where to send a check. All contributions are tax-deductible.
Give what you can. Mass incarceration will only get worse under Trump -- private prison stocks were up 50% the very first week after he was elected, and to keep them profitable they need to keep them full. Or as The Atlantic's David Frum said, explaining our new President's policies, "follow the money." Your donation will go to inmates primarily from the five poorest boroughs of NY stuck in a system that's been called the new Jim Crow.
Our program, Transforming Lives, has just put out our first magazine, Voices, written by the inmates. I have to warn you that it is tough reading but as my friend Lizzy Ratner, editor at the Nation wrote, "We never hear the voices of the men warehoused in this countries prisons. A whole generation has been silenced, their stories of pain, fear, loss and survival locked away behind high prison walls. Finally, in this magazine, we get to hear them speak. Bravo." If you give a donation of $35 or more then you will get a copy of Voices.
Thanks for your time and please pass this on to anyone who you think might be interested.