Average Joe

The suits from Region came down this month for inspection prompting a slew of renovations and maintenance. The dorms were repainted, the flower beds weeded, the lawns trimmed. That hole in the wall in the rec center was finally patched. In the chow hall the suits milled about the perimeter of the room like museum patrons, hands clasped, their dark expensive shoes reflecting in the freshly waxed floor. I've noticed government employees have a particular smell, that of soap and drugstore cologne. I wonder if inmates have a smell.

"Isn't the food supposed to be better when Region is here?" Jack sniffed at his tomato-and-rice soup and set his spoon down. "I feel sorry for those guys at El Reno. As much hassle as we go through when Region comes to town, imagine what hell those poor bastards went through preparing for the president's visit. The law must have torn that place apart, not a nail file or shoestring they didn't confiscate. And even then they kept that prison locked down. I guarantee you not one inmate got within twenty feet of Obama, except the ones they handpicked."

In an article published the next day detailing the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to a federal prison, the accompanying photo captured Obama speaking with a corrections officer in a remarkably tidy and utterly empty cell block.

"The whole thing's a publicity stunt," Jack said. "He's just groping for some legacy he can leave behind before his term is up."

Joe is more optimistic. He's been waiting to hear from the courts whether he qualifies for a sentence reduction under last year's drug reform legislation. He sees President Obama's visit to El Reno as a sign that luck is on his side and that even more relief is in the pipeline. He talks about the possibility of increased "good conduct time" and of the federal government bringing back parole, rumors which have been circulating for years. The stress of waiting is killing him. All he can do is worry. He's abandoned efforts to get into shape and instead spends his days sprawled across the empty bunk below mine eating Little Debbie snack cakes and reading crime fiction and Rolling Stone. Last night he tossed me a cupcake (he hates to eat alone) and asked me more questions about hacking.

"Have you ever heard of an onion router?"

Joe thinks I'm in prison for computer fraud. He thinks I'm some superstar hacker responsible for toppling major corporations. I never encouraged quite so fantastic a lie, but neither did I dispel it. One only needs to throw around a few technical terms like "IP masking" and "blowfish encryption" to convince the layperson he's an expert. A moderate knowledge of computers is necessary however to satisfy the curiosities of my fellow felons. Men have asked me how to erase their Internet history, how to conceal their identities online, and how to make sure a deleted file really is deleted. Like Joe, these men are already plotting their next scheme.

Often when he grills me about cryptology and the "dark web," I try to steer Joe toward the possibility of going straight. I asked him why is he so eager for prison reform and winning an early release if he only plans to entangle himself in some other criminal venture—running a brothel, growing hydroponic weed, exporting dope overseas. Now he's turned his attention to computer fraud. He said I didn't understand. He said I'd never had a taste of the money, the cars, the houses, the women.

"I can't go back to being just some average motherfucker," he said. "I can't be just an average joe."

That same week as his visit to El Reno, Obama granted clemency to forty-six nonviolent drug offenders, bringing the total number of commutations under his presidency to eighty-nine. Joe saw this as more evidence that further relief is on the way. He walked into the dorm waving a list of the forty-six men and women, saying, "It's for real. Something's gonna happen. Obama's gonna do something." Jack pointed out that those released had already served the majority of their lengthy sentences. "Big deal," he said. "What's getting out three years early when you've already served seventeen? A publicity stunt! All of these people he released were charged with crack cocaine. And they're black. How does this help me?"

I'm inclined to agree with Jack's skepticism. He and I have made amends with our time. We've spent years adjusting our expectations, honing our routines. That release date which once seemed immeasurable has solidified itself as a permanent fixture in our minds, like a moon, shining and certain. We've come too far for false hopes. Look at Joe: sleeping till ten, drinking warm sodas all afternoon, waving around that commutation list as if it were a Polaroid on which his own name might resolve. Jack said even if more reform were passed such relief would likely not affect us, as recent reforms have focused on reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Justice is cyclical, like fashion. The war on drugs has grown tiresome and expensive, and locking up blacks is no longer politically in vogue.

"The big thing now is porn," Jack said.

I looked away.

"That stuff can be real addictive you know."

The sex offender population here is indeed growing. Their numbers have swelled so much in recent months that the inmates called a meeting to redraw the boundaries in the chow hall. The whites gave up eight of their tables to accommodate the influx of sex offenders. If more sentencing reform were to pass, Jack said he'd be surprised if it helps any of these men. No congressperson would ever support a bill that gets pedophiles and murderers out of prison quicker. Ironically it is these loathsome men who have the lowest recidivism rates and would, if released, stand the better chance of staying out of prison.