My prison flashbacks sometimes come in clusters in rapid succession. They bombard my thoughts. They’re not limited to a single experience; they stymie my routine thought processes and are like a running chill down my spine. Something triggers these memories; any sensation can kick them off. The memories are vivid, dredging up feelings buried deep in my DNA. Yes, the mind is fascinating and eerie.
We all have triggers that evoke memories—when the holidays are approaching, experiencing the trappings of the season brings back memories of past seasons. Artificial Christmas trees that pop up in the lawn and garden departments of big box stores months before the holiday stir dormant memories and generate excitement. Past memories and feelings merging with memories and feelings yet to be experienced is the mind at play.
LaGuardia Airport Clusters
I recently had cluster flashbacks after arriving at LaGuardia Airport in New York. I flew to my home state to visit family, attend my fiftieth high school reunion, and make a presentation about prison reform to a social reform activist group in Westchester. Without my realizing it, the confluence of the purposes of my trip made me vulnerable to flashbacks, including sharp memories of prison—some fourteen years after returning to society.
While collecting my luggage, I was flooded with memories of a class trip to the airport. I was excited about touring a Boeing 707, one of the first commercial jet airplanes. I was ten years old at the time and had never been inside an airplane. Something about landing at this airport triggered the memory of wearing blue booties to cover my shoes before walking on the carpeted floor of the cabin. I remembered the smell of the plane, the cushy feel of the seats, and the overwhelming wonder of how such an enormous machine could fly. The irony of these memories is that the airport’s environment had changed since that visit in 1959. What mind game was happening here? Was there a link between the events on the class trip and my fiftieth high school reunion?
Modernization had made the place unrecognizable to me in 2017, so why did memories of that class trip surface at that time? My initial theory was that simply knowing my flight was coming into LaGuardia was all I needed to be taken back to 1959 and the nostalgia of my childhood. If my flight’s terminus had been Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, I doubt my LaGuardia memories would have surfaced.
But there was more. I had missed an important trigger—a prison memory related to hailing a cab.
I had to take a short taxi ride to a nearby hotel. It was dark when I left the luggage area and walked outside the terminal into chaos. People were walking between construction areas of the concourse to parking areas and to a taxi stand a hundred yards down the walkway. Over the loudspeakers, a male voice laced with authority warned that only taxis authorized to transport people to and from the airport should be patronized. Okay, I got it. While walking toward the official taxi stand, I was approached by several unauthorized cab drivers—one after another—each almost demanding that I ride in his or her cab. Without even knowing where I was going, one hustler shouted, “I’ll only charge you $65.00!”
I flashed back to my arrival at Wasco State Prison on a dark night in October 2003. I was handcuffed, and my right leg was chained to the left leg of the guy sitting next to me on the prison transport bus. Wasco was my assigned reception prison, where fresh fish were processed into the general population.
After our legging chains were removed, we were ushered off the bus. A male voice rich with authority and intensified by a megaphone demanded that we walk in single file to a designated assembly building about a hundred yards away. The walkway was lined by a ten-foot-high chain-link fence topped with coiled razor-sharp mesh. The fence separated us from a crowd of inmates who were milling around the yard, checking us out, and yelling demands, insults, and obscenities.
It didn’t take much for me to connect the dots of why this uncomfortable memory had surfaced. Once I did, the impact calmed me down as I waited for my taxi, immune to the deafening shouts from hustling, unauthorized cab drivers.
My presentation to the WESPAC Foundation was entitled “Prison Reform: What Is It?” The program was divided into three topics that necessarily take me back into the prison yard at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California. It’s easier to prepare for known prison-related cluster memories when I’m going into a situation that draws upon those experiences.
I was prepared to talk about three general topics: preincarceration, incarceration, and postincarceration. In a nutshell, the formula for these talks is to highlight subcategories within each general topic.
For example, preincarceration subject matter includes the law surrounding plea bargains and how prosecutors use duress and the impact on families and children to extract a guilty plea from a defendant who might otherwise not be as culpable as the plea represents, resulting in a longer sentence. I experienced the plea bargain in my case. I did not have the resources available to me—as is the case with most criminal defendants—to put on a compelling case, not necessarily to achieve a not-guilty verdict but rather to receive a shorter prison sentence in a non-life-threatening environment. Flashback clusters percolate into my brain when I prepare for this topic and later when I talk about it in detail.
Incarceration subject matter raises issues having to do with prison living conditions such as overcrowding, state-sanctioned racism, and the basic rules for the best chance for survival. Attendees of my talks find this topic unfettered by the preincarceration topics. People know that being involuntarily locked up is viscerally repulsive. Therein lies the attraction to, and the interest in, prison-oriented movies, theater, and poetry. Getting too close to the subject of losing one’s freedom is nullified by one’s suspension of reality while viewing The Shawshank Redemption, when leaving the theater at any time is a possibility, and, more importantly, when the movie is over and there are no repercussions of real incarceration—you go home, and the free life continues.
The incarceration subject matter is where most of my flashback demons settle, to be activated when jolted by unintentional provocation from the outside or intentional stimulation on my own accord. Not a single day goes by that I don’t appreciate that I can open and close a door after the twenty-five months of incarceration that stopped me from doing this simple act we all take for granted on the outside.
High School Reunion
My high school reunion was, in a word, surreal. Memory triggers snapped and popped throughout the weekend. My feelings fluctuated between feeling locked up in a world lost to time—much like prison—and feeling validated that people remembered me as a good guy without any taint of the prison world. Many of my classmates had read my memoir Derailed. They were curious and asked: “How the hell did that happen to you, Roseman?” In a way, that sort of comment acted to reverse the reputation-smearing triggers of having been convicted of crimes and doing time. Ironically, writing about my prison experiences and how I managed to survive is a shield against hurtful and anxiety-producing memory clusters. I wonder if other formerly incarcerated people get the same release from exposing what happened to them.
The postincarceration issues dwell in the real world of leaving prison and becoming a formerly incarcerated person. The change might sound easy and filled with new hope, but it’s not. I started all over, but I had the (White) advantage of a legal career, an understanding of how society works and malfunctions, and a family that took me back with open arms and financial support for fourteen months until I could afford to move on by myself. So many of the men I served time with had no such advantages. And worse, the punitive prison system they endured did very little to act as a hand up but instead became a repressive force calculated to result in failure. Hence, the high recidivism rate, people returning to where they can have “three hots (meals) and a cot” in a parallel universe.
The thought of seeing so many classmates after half a century greased the flow of my memories. The clusters flashed me back with enhanced acuity to faded expectations. I’d been transported back into the world of reentry, a time and place that is threatening to formerly incarcerated people. Several of my postings speak directly to this subject. Hobson’s Housing Choice for Ex-Offenders, Ban the Box, and Jobs, Jobs, Jobs are a few of them.
The postincarceration stain society puts on the formerly incarcerated person is tantamount to a life sentence that marginalizes and interferes with moving on. For many in this category, the hiatus of void time has a negative impact upon family relations, interrupts education goals, and affects the opportunity for meaningful work—the critical parts of living with pride. Reentering people know they are offered the opportunity to be railroaded into bankruptcy court or, even worse, back to breaking laws to survive, so sadly a direct pass back to prison. There’s got to be a better way. My posts make lots of thought-out suggestions—please read them and start conversations.
Cluster flashback episodes lurk out there for everyone. No one is immune from the reopening of wounds earned from making bad decisions or from conduct known to be risky in society’s criminal justice system. As with other minorities in our American culture, “marked” men and women live in an uncertain and frightening world. So many feel lost and out of step, living a life in which there’s no opportunity to grasp a golden ring. These people are peppered with cultural flashback episodes that dance to the waltz of impending and ominous physical and mental health issues. Ultimately, society pays for subjugating its people in currencies not measured in dollars or sense.
If you relate to the topic of this post or if you don’t agree or relate to my point of view, I’d like to receive your comments.
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