I’m checking in from an Australian prison. Following up “Anxiety Implosion,” I’m writing about one of those rare moments in life when a single choice determines a person’s destiny. A decision made for me that did just that. My lawyer “guaranteed” me (his words not mine) I’d never see a day in prison. Upon sentencing, I was stunned to find out I wasn’t going home that day. My wife ran over to me after the verdict to hug me, I gave her my cufflinks and wedding ring and told her I loved her as I was led away in tears.
First they take you to a holding cell underground beneath the courthouse that’s sterile and cold. My head was spinning and I was in a panic. I took in my surroundings and locked eyes on the man in the cell across from mine. He was well-dressed (most others were disheveled) and had the same sadness in his eyes that I was feeling. He signaled with his hands that he was sentenced to two years and asked me mine, which I signaled was four. That interaction stuck in my mind and would come full circle some nine months later.
After a few hours an officer appeared, handcuffed me, and led me to a paddy wagon which transported us to a remand center, a maximum-security prison where you remain for about four weeks until reclassification to another jail. I was shocked to find that most prisoners carried a homemade knife in their pocket and every day many men would share a needle that was rolled across from the next yard. I rarely spoke to anyone and spent time deep in thought about the choices I’d made and the resulting repercussions. Though I witnessed some awful things, I never suffered any personal confrontations.
I was later transferred to a minimum-security prison and within 24 hours was employed and placed into a “working wing.” I was an office manager and went to a desk each morning much as I’d done in my previous life. My six-figure salary was a distant memory as I adjusted to a new world and my new salary of $44 per week. More important than the money, the working wings housed people who had a stable routine, making an income and able to buy shampoo, deodorant, and a few packaged food items. Even though I was on a “religious friendly” diet to avoid pork products, the food was far from friendly. The wing was surprisingly social and I quickly met some decent guys and settled in easily. Outside of some painful abdominal cramping, I was safe and into a good routine.
Over the following months my abdominal cramping progressively worsened; each visit to the clinic resulted in an aspirin and requests for a blood test ignored. My wife came to my rescue and wrote to the governor (warden) expressing “concern for my medical welfare.” In response I was finally tested and transferred to a local hospital. I was nearing organ failure. I entered the room and said hello to the man lying in the next bed who, with a Middle Eastern accent, replied in kind. I asked where he was from, and he guardedly replied Israel. I then asked if he was Jewish and after a long pause he said he was. I enthusiastically said, “So am I,” as he was the first Jew I’d met in prison. He then sat up and looked at me in shock. At that point I recognized him and said, “I know you” and asked if he was sentenced on the same date as me. Then he said, “You were the guy across from me in the cells under the courthouse!”
On that day a choice was made to send me in one direction, and he in another. His journey brought him to a prison where within four hours of arriving he was severely beaten by four Arabic men. With broken ribs, legs, arms and a crushed skull he was admitted DOA and revived at hospital. He was suffered permanent brain damage and will never walk unaided again. In contrast, I play soccer, share meals and joke with the Arabic men in my wing. In fact we caringly refer to each other as “cousin.”