I just assumed Scotty was a diaper sniper when he moved into my dorm. He fit the mold; 5 foot 5, big bifocals, quiet and never far from his bunk. Operating under this assumption, I dealt with him accordingly. Which is to say I didn’t deal with him at all. Different prisoners have different approaches to child predators. Abuse, extortion, exploitation… Karmic law can sometimes be a violent force. My approach is to let it do its thing. So I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that Scotty was, in fact, not a cho-mo. He was doing life for murder.
Back in 1985, when Reagan was just beginning his second term, when breakdancing was still in style and artificial intelligence was only a plot point in a sci-fi novel, Scotty found out his old lady was cheating. The arrest report says he shot her lover six times after leaving a Lakeland bar. He doesn’t remember any of it, but he was pretty drunk. While he was telling me his story, I kept doing the math in my head. Thirty-three years. I’ve been gone for 14 and it already feels like an eternity. When Scotty fell, I was only 11 years old. My life was really just beginning as his was coming to an end. (Although I’m sure the victim’s family would argue that the only life that actually came to an end that day was their loved one’s.) Sad situation, all the way around. If life is really just this flow of atoms through time and space, this endless waterfall of moments, each fading into the next, it’s amazing to fathom how a single drop — a solitary frame in an infinite sea of pixels — could have such far-reaching effects.
At age 20, Scotty was found guilty and sentenced to life with a mandatory quarter. Back in those days, Florida still had a parole system and this sentence ensured that he would serve at least 25 years, day for day, before being considered for release. This is what both the legislature and the court intended. Then came the 90s when the measure of politicians on both sides of the aisle came down to how tough they were on crime. Humane ideas such as empathy, forgiveness and second chances were viewed as weaknesses and quickly pounced on by political opponents. The parole system was abolished, the prison-building craze began, and life sentences suddenly meant exactly that… life.
But there was one problem: people like Scotty who were sentenced according to a different set of laws. This is why there is still a parole commission in the Sunshine State despite the fact that it’s been almost three decades since the parole system was axed. But to many of these dinosaurs, the system is a cruel joke.
Scotty limped to the finish line of his mandatory 25 years in 2010, legally blind from retinopathy (hence the enormous bifocals) along with a host of other medical complications that come with being a type 1 diabetic at the mercy of a starch-laden prison diet. When he met with the parole examiner that year, he presented a stack of certificates; everything from vocational classes like cabinet making to small appliance repair to residential wiring (which he took and taught), to the Christian program “Kairos,” to various anger and stress management programs, to the state-mandated Compass reentry course, along with both parenting pilot programs, from which he was the first in the state to graduate.
In addition to all these accomplishments, he also arrived at the quarter-century mark without a single disciplinary report. Just to add some perspective here, I’ve been incarcerated since March of 2005 and I’ve had eight DRs. Eight. And I consider myself a model inmate. Florida prisons are rife with drugs and gangs and undiagnosed mental illness. Even when one is committed to living righteously in these places, shit happens. Your bunkie hides something in the cell that you’re not aware of, you’re attacked and forced to defend yourself, you talk during count, you miss a call-out… Or you somehow manage to sidestep all of the above, but you have the misfortune of crossing paths with the wrong guard on the wrong day. Bogus DRs are almost a cliché in here. This was especially true during the last two decades when institutional abuse was at its height. The fact that Scotty was able to avoid every pitfall and keep his nose pristine is a minor miracle. Even now, on the doorstep of his 34th year in the joint, he still has a clean disciplinary record.
The parole commission set his presumptive release date for 2030. And every few years when some formality of a rubber-stamped kangaroo-court hearing pops up, they pretend to consider all the facts before banging the gavel and denying his release. Again. This despite overwhelming evidence of his rehabilitation, exemplary conduct and deteriorating health. The parole examiner who conducted that initial 2010 interview even recommended to the board that he be released. Didn’t matter. Denied.
This begs the question: Why? Scotty is not the first person I’ve met in this situation. There are a handful at every institution (though I’ve never known anyone with 33 years DR-free). It almost seems that the state is bitter that there was once a time when sentencing laws were fair and provided a mechanism where men and women could earn their way out of prison with good behavior. So even though the parole commission is required by law to have these hearings, for the most part, people like Scotty are just set off until they die. The few that do make it out are those who are lucky enough to have friends and family to make phone calls and show support. This is more an exception than a rule. The reality is that people serving long prison sentences usually serve them alone.
Like I said, sad situation all the way around.