Friday, November 26, 2004

I won't be at the mall tomorrow...

Today is the busiest shopping day of the year. Millions of us were in recovery from turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce overload. I burned off a few calories by following through with my usual Friday routine: it was laundry day. I filled several pages of my journaling trying to figure out ways to avoid the holiday bulge – which in my case seems to be a little too late. The bulge has already appeared. Yikes! The day was filled alternately with dusting, vacuuming, reading, writing, sending email, and watching the “What Not to Wear” Thanksgiving marathon. Where does Clinton find that purple polka dot shirt? Ultimmately, I was doing anything and everything to avoid thinking about tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going to prison. All day long I have wondered what that will be like. I remembered that I went to a prison in the Washington, DC area back into 1980 as part of a one-day program to encourage and support the men incarcerated there during the holiday season. I spent a few hours in a medium-security facility, sang a few Christmas carols, shook a few hands, and got out of there as quickly as possible. Tomorrow it will be maximum security, maximum shake down, maximum lock down, and minimum sit down. His name is Daniel Sanchez. I’ve never met him before, but I feel like I know him pretty well. Almost two years ago, I met his mother who was on a crusade to try to get his sentence reduced from an unfathomable 28 years down to something reasonable like 5 or 10 years. Daniel does not deny that he committed a crime. He attempted to mug someone, but after he knocked her down, a wave of remorse washed over him, so he ran away. He didn’t take her wallet. He didn’t rape her. He knocked her down; as she fell, she broke her finger. The next day he turned himself in to the police, admitted his crime, followed the advice of his court appointed lawyer, and signed a prepared statement that he thought was an accurate account of the crime. Not fluent in English, Daniel had to work through an interpreter whose reputation was one of making the lives of the investigators easier rather than that of the accused. In any case, Daniel was sentenced to 28 years in a maximum security prison. How do I know all this? His mother came to my house and told me his story. She told me about the sweet son who turned into a rebellious teenager and was blossoming into a strong and respectful young man. She told me about the young man who had found a good job in construction, was applying for American citizenship, and then did something inexplicable. He had never committed a crime before that day. He never denied his culpability. He never considered leaving the country to escape punishment. And for that, he will spend the next 26 years incarcerated. Claudina, Daniel’s mother, arrived at my house in early 2003 with an armful of papers, documents, and letters and asked me to translate the English documents into Spanish and the Spanish documents into English so that she could mount an appeal on her son’s behalf. During every free hour, I worked frantically, advised her on agencies that might be interested in assisting her, and provided as much moral support as I could. Both her spirits and mine were gradually deflated as rejection letter after rejection letter found its way into her mailbox. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of an early release for Daniel, but Claudina has not lost hope. She thinks that if he is forced to serve the full sentence, she will not be alive when he is released, so she will spend the rest of her life, if necessary, lobbying for another lawyer’s assistance, another trial, any consideration whatsoever. She writes to him regularly, visits him often, awaits his telephone calls anxiously, and is preparing to send out yet another round of petitions on her son’s behalf. I have purchased a Spanish thesaurus and await the next batch of entreaties in need of translation. And tomorrow I will wake up early, meet her at to her house, and ride with her in her car for nearly three hours to the town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina to visit Daniel in prison. What does one wear for a prison visit? Certainly not all my usual silver jewelry; apparently the metal detection and search process can be humiliating. A modest skirt, black sweater and denim jacket are my outfit of choice. I chose that jacket because I need one with a pocket for my driver’s license. It’s the only thing I will be allowed to take into the building; I need the same photo ID that I sent several weeks ago with the visitor’s application I submitted. While millions of Americans will be out shopping or at home watching football, eating leftover turkey, and sleeping in one more morning of this holiday weekend, Claudina and I will be sitting with Daniel for two short hours, talking, laughing, praying, and trying not to imagine the next two and a half decades of two hour visits. Me? I’m going to meet a friend, to put a face with a name I have typed time and time again, and to prove to him that someone other than his family cares enough about him to forego another trip to the mall in passionate pursuit of Chia Pets and other early bird specials in order to wish him a belated Happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Such as it will be…

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