Saturday, October 29, 2011

Confessions from prison

Back when I did time in Rawlins
(Vinícius Sgarbe | stock.xchng vi)
It had been less than two years since I had graduated from college with a journalism degree, and already I was in trouble.

I was about to take a seat in the empty bleachers of the recreation building of the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Nervously, I wondered about the road that had brought me to this.

Across the basketball court from where I was seated, a man in blue jeans was lying on a bench with his shirt off. He was pressing a barbell in the weight room. Actually, it wasn’t a room at all — it was weightlifting area off to the side. From the inside, the building resembled a field house sans windows. I do not recall seeing any interior walls, only the four outer one — for security  reasons, I imagined. Higher up, where the second floor would be in other buildings, were places where guards could perch to watch over what transpired below.

At the moment, I was hoping they were keeping an eye on me.

The concrete floor had been painted the same drab gray color it seems everyone uses when they decide a basement or shop floor would look better painted. White stripes on the floor marked the boundaries of the different areas — I clearly remember a pool table in one spot, the basketball court I sat next to, the weightlifting area. I suppose if WKRP’s Less Nessman had been a con, he’d have called it a weight room.

At the time, I thought I was in pretty good shape (as plucky young guys often do), but I did not work out. From where I sat maybe 10 yard away, it seemed I could see the ripple of every muscle from his abs to his chest and from shoulders to his forearms as he faced the ceiling, pushing the weights off the stand above him. With not much else to do in prison, I imagined he lifted weights a lot.

I also noticed the tattoos.

As the prison’s athletic director had walked me in through the secure areas (where I actually felt safe), it seemed as if every inmate in sight had barbed wire tats winding around their necks. But this weightlifter had them coiled around his wrists and biceps as well.

Many inmates also had teardrops tattooed below one eye. I no longer recall whether it was the right or the left.

As I stepped up into the bleachers, my camera bag hung characteristically from my left shoulder, a stenographer’s notebook with its greenish, lightly ruled pages sticking out the top. The Rawlins Daily Times owned an adjacent small-business supply shop that for some reason never carried reporters’ notebooks, so we accepted steno pads as a compromise. My right hand tightly clutched my Canon A-1, the first new 35mm SLR camera I had ever purchased. This was my baby, my instrument for making beautiful art and (I hoped) stunning news and sports photos.

I want to point out that I did not enter the field of journalism to be a sports writer or photographer. I seldom have had more than a fleeting interest in sports. I longed for the intricacies of news, how local politics played out on the city council, the school board, the board of county commissioners, as well as hard news — fires, crime, events of nature.

But beggars can’t be choosers. When I graduated from college in 1982, the nation was in a recession. Newspapers were closing around the country, and the journalists who had lost their jobs were flooding the market. I had wanted to work in Minnesota but found myself mailing off cover letters and resumes all over the country. I’d even applied to work at one of two papers that operated then in Cheyenne, Wyo., but that position had been filled — apparently before my letter arrived.

Still, that paper had a sister publication 150 miles to the west in Rawlins, where a sports editor was desperately needed. They forwarded my resume there. Eventually, in my parents’ home 1,100 miles to the east, I received a phone call.

“I need a sports editor and photographer,” the voice on the other end of the line informed me.

“I don’t know much about sports,” I responded. “I’m hoping to be a news reporter and photographer.”

“What do you know about sports?” the voice asked.

“Well, I know the difference between a football and a baseball, and I’m not afraid to try.”

Before I knew it, I had a job, no thanks to anything special about me. The Rawlins paper needed a warm body, I needed a job. It had been 18 months and a lot of heartache since I’d graduated, but I’d turned the corner. It would be a little less than $10,000 a year (yeah, it wasn’t much back then, either). But, I thought, I'm on my way.

Still, this whole sports thing had me nervous. More than anything else, I did not want to fail.

I arrived in Rawlins in early November and settled in to learn as quickly as I could how to cover sports. I was not afraid of the photography at all. Writing about something I knew virtually nothing about, however, was scary in a profession where accuracy is one of the buzzwords.

In those first weeks, I met the coaching staff at the high school and middle school, as well as the parks and recreation director. Those guys were fantastic, offering me tips on writing about basketball, understanding game stats and trends to watch for and how to write about them without boring my readers to tears. This was an instance where it took a small village of people to teach a sports editor how to write sports stories, and they did well. After all, who better to have for a sports writing coach than the actual coaches?

Also in those early days, I met a young woman in the ad department who had one of the neatest smiles I’d ever seen. I wouldn’t get up the nerve to ask her out for another month or so, and I would never have imagined then that nine months later, we would wed beneath a partly cloudy halcyon sky in south-central Wyoming’s Snowy Range Mountains. It would be another 2½ years before the first of our five children would come along.

In the meantime, I was learning the ropes. Because I had a lot to learn and because I wanted to be the best I could be at what I did, I covered everything — not just high school sports, but middle school, too. I also covered the city basketball league. That is how I wound up in the Wyoming State Penitentiary.

Back then, Rawlins was a town of about 10,000, so there were not a whole lot of city league basketball teams out there. The parks and recreation director and the penitentiary’s athletic director had thought it might be fun to mix things up a bit — the prison had a league, too.

So there I was, sitting on a set of metal bleachers that had only four or five rows, preparing to watch the first day of a weekend-long basketball tournament. On the way in, the athletic director — I believe his name was Lenny — reassured me I’d be safe. But he did caution me that, once I got comfortable, the sharks would start circling. Each one, he said, would have a story to tell me. It seems that no one in prison really belongs there.

He was right. No sooner had I taken a seat than they starting straggling over, one or two at a time. They were all very normal, polite guys — a little rough around the edges perhaps, like some of my drinking buddies back in college or when I worked in the factory. Their tattoos gave them a harder edge — back then, tats had a stigma and were not as commonly accepted as they are today.

But sure enough, after the introductions and requisite pleasantries — “Sunny but cold out there today, isn’t it?” — the tales of woe began.

“I don’t really belong here.”

“I should never have been convicted … I’m innocent.”

“I don’t deserve this — I was set up, and if you’d just tell my story …”

How could I safely say, “Um, no” and get out of here in one piece?

I was never so grateful for the start of a game in a sport that had never really interested me all that much. I stepped off the bleachers, camera at the ready. “Editor will be mad if I don’t come back with photos, guys.”

Still, as I began shooting my camera and jotting down notes, I was amazed at the path I had traveled to arrive at this point that offered me such an unusual, fun and exciting opportunity. I never had imagined I would step inside a jail, let alone a state prison.

Today, I recall that time 28 years ago: the exhilaration I felt moving to a state I’d never visited but whose history invited me to explore it in downtown facades that seemed years, not decades old. The intrigue I felt while traveling to come upon, in the middle of nowhere, aged wooden homes, long shorn of paint and now leaning awkwardly to one side as if slowly collapsing under the constant pressure of Wyoming’s never-ceasing winds. These were old homesteads and ranch houses that never would have survived so long in more urban parts.

I wistfully remember the excitement of learning the craft of the journalist, writing rapidly and accurately, shooting my camera, and then trying to bring it all together on deadline, with hopes of not only pleasing my editor, but also of convincing him that I was the best reporter/photographer he’d ever seen.

As I taste and savor these sweet memories, a very large part of me wonders what it will be like should I never work as a journalist again. I am not sure I want to know, yet I fear I will have to find out.