“PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW – A CHANGE OF SCENERY” By Tony Casson

I didn’t sleep very well the night before my release (go figure). Poor Pete – my ‘cellie’ – was undoubtedly aware of my tossing and turning, to say nothing of my somewhat boisterous and frequent release of gas (nervous anticipation plus cabbage for lunch combined with that chili for the last supper equals, well, you get the idea). I’m not sure that ‘nervous’ is an accurate descriptive phrase, though. It was more a case of being flat out eager to meet the future and step out of the time capsule I had inhabited for 4 years, one month, and 20 days. I was excited to get a chance to demonstrate to everyone who was interested – be they incarcerated or ‘free’ – the full power of God to change us when we invite Him into our hearts and totally submit to His will. I was also chomping at the bit to put my faith in the Lord to work beyond the constraints of the fences and razor wire.

Finally, after bouncing up and down all night, looking out the window of our cell door, and praying, praying, praying for patience, our cells were unlocked about 5:10 AM. I took my last shower in the showers I had cleaned for 2 years as my second ‘job’ in the prison, finished getting ready, and looked around the 7’x11’ space I had occupied for the previous 4+ years, over 3 ½ of them with Pete as my roommate.

My locker had been emptied by the end of the previous evening, my little mesh carryon bag was ready to go, and I went downstairs to find a couple of people waiting for me that one normally would never expect to see at that time of day: “Big Bad Billy Bo-land” (ok, he really prefers to be called Brandon, he’s not real big, although he does need to lose some weight, and he’s not what I would consider bad at all; I just made that name up for its alliterative value and because it was very ‘prison’ sounding) and Stanley, my very first prison ‘cellie’, had made a special effort to get up and see me on my way. It was a gesture which was greatly appreciated. Due to an unforeseen power outage related to exterior security, we were subjected to an ‘emergency’ lockdown the night before, a full 30 minutes earlier than normal. Because of this, I had not completed my ‘rounds’ of farewells. I did not get to see Joseph, David, Brian, Dan, and several others for that one last time and I felt bad about it, but didn’t feel I should go around waking everyone up. Perhaps they will read these words and know that I wanted to tell them ‘goodbye’. They should all also know they will all be on my mind, and in my prayers.

Emotions ran high that morning, as they had the previous evening. When one asks God to help them use the experience of incarceration in a positive manner, the act of leaving becomes bittersweet. Powerful bonds were formed over the months and years, and it is difficult to describe the conflicting emotions at work within us all. In spite of the emotions involved and the love that develops out of positive relationships in prison, the time does come when the door opens for each person and that person must go. There is no putting it off. No delays are allowed. The call comes for an individual to go to Receiving & Discharge (R&D) and off you go.

The call came for me at about 6:15 AM and I said a few hurried, absolutely final farewells, and proceeded to walk through the compound, barely able to resist the urge to run. (There is no running on the compound, unless it is on the rec yard, but believe me, the urge WAS there!). Reluctance to leave was quickly turning into a need to leave. It was rapidly turning into focus on the enormity of the impending event. It was a very surreal moment and I felt as if I were merely skimming along the surface of the ground. In a few minutes, the BOP would be through with me, and I with them, and I would be on my way.

I arrived at the door and was dismayed that no one was standing there, holding it open, smiling in happiness over my release. OK, so that is not exactly true. I didn’t expect anyone to really care and I was not disappointed. The actual processing only took a few minutes. I discovered that a promise to pay me for the work I had done from the 1st through the 16th, along with the bonus my unit manager had indicated I would get as a parting ‘gift’, was not fulfilled. This was not financially devastating, but it was just one more thing to add to the pile of ‘things’ that made one wonder about the character, integrity, competence, and level of professionalism of the staff. In addition, there was a certified copy of my birth certificate and a new social security card in my file in my case manager’s office which I assumed would be given me, so I inquired about it. I was met with the response, “Didn’t you ask your case manager for it?” I could only respond with, “This is the first time I have ever been released from prison. How would I even know to ask? Shouldn’t it have simply been given to me?” I wrote down my sister’s address in Virginia and asked if he would please see to it that they were sent. In all fairness, I must say he was good to his word as they were actually received about 5 days later.

Lt. James was the lieutenant on duty, so he had to come make sure they were releasing the right person. He shook my hand and wished me luck. No one had shaken my hand for 4 years, leaving me to think staff was afraid they were going to catch something. Perhaps they would have caught something, but it would have been more along the lines of something called professionalism, respect, and raising people up. He also wished me luck and walked me out to the building I had entered on April Fools’ Day, 2010. They went through one last ‘verification’ procedure and then someone pointed me to a white Ford Ranger idling in the parking lot, and I went out the door. That act was every bit as surreal as entering the building 4 years earlier, but in a very, very, very good way!

No one stopped me, called me back, or paid me any further attention. The only person interested in me now was the inmate from the camp next door whose job it was to deliver me to the bus station in Lafayette. The bus station was about 90 minutes away and I was looking forward to whatever scenery the surrounding countryside would afford me. It proved to be a very pleasant trip through piney woods and fields used for growing cotton and rice. The inmate driving the pickup truck was ‘short’ as well, having only 23 days left before his own release.

My excitement built as we drew closer to the point from which my ‘journey’ would officially begin. The camp inmate’s final task was to escort me into the building and make sure I purchased a ticket (non-refundable) for the correct destination. I had prepared my sister for picking me up at the bus station in Richmond, Va. based upon the departure time of the 9:15 AM bus, but that bus was sold out. I had to purchase a ticket for the next one, which didn’t leave till about 1:30 PM, leaving me several hours to kill, and a problem to solve: How to notify Kathy, since there were no pay phones in or around the station, and I had no cell phone, of course. I asked the inmate if he would notify the officers back in Oakdale and he said, “They don’t care. They are done with you. You’re someone else’s problem now.

And with that, he was gone.

Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, control of my life had been handed back to me. For sure, it was not an absolute “I-am-in-charge-of-my-own-destiny” type of control. After all, I was expected to board the bus and report to my Probation Officer within 72 hours, but the control I did have was of mammoth proportions when compared with the lack of control I had had as an inmate at Oakdale FCI.

I had the same control over my life I had when I was expected to self-surrender 4 years earlier: I could not do what was expected of me if I so decided! I could run! I could flee! Fortunately, the time I had spent in Oakdale taught me many things, and high up on the list was the fact that I had spent a good portion of my life ‘fleeing’. It took some work, but I finally figured out that it was myself I was always running from, and no matter how hard I tried, I had never been able to escape me. Wherever in the vastness of this country I wound up, I was always there. Besides, fleeing would set the U.S. Marshalls upon me and I didn’t want to wind up facing Tommy Lee Jones in a storm drain trying to convince him I was a good person with him telling me that he didn’t care.

Nope, the best thing to do would be to figure out a way to call Kathy and let her know of the change in schedule, and proceed as planned. I wandered around in downtown Lafayette for a while searching fruitlessly for a payphone, and I finally gave up and walked back to the station. The man behind the desk told me to ask people to use their cell phone, but I felt really awkward about that. I finally got up the nerve to ask a friendly looking Hispanic man, and he turned me down. I have written about my past experiences with rejection, and I began to get a little tense, but I prayed silently (really, really prayed!) and tried another man who thought I was going to ask for a smoke at first, but gladly let me use his phone. I left Kathy a message, since it was only to be expected that she wouldn’t be available to answer. She called back right away, though, and he handed me the phone as soon as he saw it was a number he didn’t recognize. I gave her the new info, we chatted for a few moments, and then I hung up. I was considerably more relaxed now, and spent some time talking to the man whose phone I had borrowed. He worked on offshore oil rigs and had just come in for his shore time.

Many people wanted to know what the first thing I was going to eat was. What we envision and what constitutes reality are often two different things, as I have come to learn, and accept. What I wanted was unimportant. I actually went to a Burger King near the bus station and ordered a couple of breakfast sandwiches and a carton of milk. One of the sandwiches was the wrong thing, and the first mouthful of “ultra-pasteurized’ milk carrying an expiration date of a full month in the future was sour. Flat out spoiled. Maybe they weren’t aware that even though it was ‘ultra’ pasteurized, it still required refrigeration.

Welcome to the free world. Still, all things considered, it was the best-tasting sour milk I’d had in 4 years, and there had been plenty in Oakdale.

There wasn’t much I could do beyond watching the minutes, and the people, pass as I waited to board the bus that would take me miles away from here. I did buy a hot dog off of a cart outside the station as it got closer to noon, but I didn’t wander very far even though I knew when the bus was coming and could have gone exploring. I felt rather conspicuous in my cheap blue jeans and white golf shirt issued by the prison. It seemed as if I had this big sign on my forehead that announced who I was, where I had been, and the reason.

I began to pray in earnest for the patience to be calm, to be strong, and to be content. It would take all of that, and more, because my time was coming, and I hadn’t ridden on the bus in over 30 years. Like it had done me, time had changed the “Grey Dog” as well.

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