The kid was dragged to the bathroom just after the ten o'clock count, just as soon as the cops had snuffed out the lights. In the dark we heard the struggle: boots screaming across the concrete, the clang and spatter of a sink drain being torn from the wall, the wallop of fists on flesh, like someone beating out a rug.

And over that, incongruously, we heard the pisas' braying laughter, smelled the prickly chill of menthol.

They pinned the boy to the floor, one man on each limb. A fifth whisked his shorts and underwear to his knees while yet another set upon the writhing kid, slathering his balls and asshole with globs of greasy muscle rub. He gasped and flopped like a fish. His assailants released him then, and the boy leapt to his feet and stumbled off to the showers, yelping, cursing in Spanish, his shorts bunched around his ankles.

The pisas cheered.

This was no assault; this was a send-off.

The next morning was clear and chilly and no less windy than any other day in West Texas where wind forms stubble the rolling dun-colored hills. Just beyond the administration building, towering over the prison's parking lot, our own turbine spun lackadaisically, its broad, white wings like those of an albatross. In the commissary's courtyard, eddies sent leaves and trash skittering over the feet of inmate shoppers listening for their names over the loudspeaker.

We'd been waiting, the cook and I, for an hour to be called to the window to receive our groceries, though it's not unusual to wait as long as three. Months ago one desperate man who'd been waiting for razor blades took a shit on the ground behind some laundry carts after an officer denied him access to a bathroom. He was known around the yard from then on as the "Commissary Shitter."

"Now, if I had to take a shit," mused the cook, "I'd squat over the rain gutter there." He wore no jacket despite the chill. The cook hails from the Northwest and finds Texans' sensitivity to cold cute.

"I'd use the garbage bin," I said shivering, pointing to the blue receptacle beneath the commissary eves. "I'd perch on top if it like a gargoyle and wipe my ass with leaves."

The cook nodded. A reasonable solution.

There was some excitement behind us just then. The crowd had pivoted suddenly. Some men whistled. The cook and I turned to see beyond the commissary's fence a handful of inmates being escorted to R&D—Receipt and Discharge. They were being released to the free world. Among them was the pisa kid who'd received the muscle-rub treatment the night before. He waved to his homeboys, a muppet grin spread across his face.

Walking alongside the pisa was another man, Shaw, who was supposed to have left for the halfway house back in March but whose release was pushed back to October due to the nationwide spike in COVID.

Shaw, who'd served seventeen years, had learned of the postponement only two weeks before he was due to get out and a day after he was quarantined in the library. Some prisons and jails have the highest numbers of COVID infections in the country, the bureau requires inmates be isolated two weeks prior to their release to prevent the disease from spreading into communities. Ironically it was while he was in isolation that Shaw and some thirty other inmates in the library with him became infected with the virus, likely by a nurse who tested the men without changing her gloves.

They say time slows the closer you get to the door. I can attest to the truth of this observation. The last decade has gone by, in retrospect, much more quickly than I could have imagined, which is both a relief and a sorrow: a relief for what is over, a sorrow for what can never be reclaimed. Only within the past year or so have I realized I'm nearing the end of my bid. Since then I've often felt as though I'm standing over a stove, waiting for a pot to boil while consumed with the most desperate and urgent hunger.

After waiting months to hear from the halfway house in Dallas, their decision finally arrived in the mail in the form of an "Acceptance Letter," as though I'd applied for university.

"Dear Warden V, Aaron," the letter began. "February 16th, 2021 has been agreed upon for the effective transfer date to the Volunteers of America Residential Re-entry Center."

I waved the letter in the air as though it were indeed a collage admission. I showed the cook, whose own release is set for July. He clapped me on the back like a proud father and congratulated me, though I suspected he was mildly annoyed I'd be leaving before him.

I didn't show the letter to everyone. I didn't show the letter to Sam, who still has five years left in his bid. And I didn't show Sonny, the barber, who has fifty-two years left to serve and who turned forty-three this past week. I didn't show him the letter, didn't tell him my date, didn't mention a thing about halfway houses.

Seven months after his original release date, come mid-October, Shaw had once again packed his belongings. He wasn't leaving with much—some sweats, a toothbrush, his bible. He was not made to quarantine beforehand since he'd already been exposed to the virus and was now considered immune. According to his itinerary, Shaw would have fifty-six hours to report to the halfway house in Portland, Oregon. He'd be traveling by Greyhound.

But then on the morning he was to be released for the second time, Shaw as paged to Unit Secretary Ms. A's office. She told him they'd been a mistake, the prison had forgotten to buy him his bus ticket.

On top of that, the staff had lost Shaw's birth certificate.

"How did you lose his birth certificate?" cried Ms. A looking up at Shaw from her phone and shaking her head. She had tendered her resignation a week earlier. The decent officers all eventually leave, driven off by the prison's dysfunctional, toxic culture. An administrator once confided to me that it's his coworkers, not inmates, that give him headaches.

"This is the second birth certificate you've lost this week!" Ms. A said. "How does this keep happening?"

With only so many hours to report to the halfway house before he'd be considered an escapee, the delay meant that traveling by bus was no longer an option. Shaw would have to fly to Portland instead. But securing a plane ticket and processing the necessary paperwork would take another day.

Shaw would remain a prisoner for two more nights.

Given all that had transpired—COVID, false hope, the staff's incompetence—Shaw remained remarkably positive I'm not sure under the same circumstances I'd remained so upbeat. I might have withered into an impenetrable depression, or else might have blown up at a CO and wound up in the SHU. Shaw, who is devoutly religious, told me he believed the postponements were a test, God's way of ensuring he's prepared for the rigors and challenges ahead. "Maybe God's telling me there are some things I still need to work on before I get out."

He stood at my bunk side wearing a T-shirt four times too big for him. It hung nearly to his knees like a moo-moo. He'd already turned in his prison-issued clothes the day before and had had to borrow another man's shirt.

I asked him what he planned to do in Portland, if he ever got there. He told me he'd been working in a grocery store before he got locked up. That was when he was twenty-four. He is forty-one now. For the past seventeen years he's world almost exclusively in the prison's butcher shop, slicing bologna logs and beef roasts and defrosting chicken leg quarters. He said he'll probably go back to the grocery store; it's all he knows.

" I was looking at my transcript the other day," he said to me. Our transcripts keep a record of every class and extracurricular activity we participate in over the course of our bids. Shaw's ran for three pages.

"It's like a timeline, you know. I ran my finger down the date. Here's when I turned forty, here's when I was thirty-six, here's when I was thirty-two, here's when I was twenty-five, and here…" His voice trailed off.

"It was depressing, you know? I thought, Where did it all go?"

The next morning, standing outside the commissary, the cook and I watched Shaw and the others being escorted to R&D, Shaw marching forward with all the strength in his body, as though he were walking into a stiff breeze. Another windy West Texas day. Commissary shoppers whistled and hollered rudely, but Shaw showed no sign of hearing them. Perhaps he was anxious. Or perhaps he'd already gone, and these people and this place had ceased to matter to him. Or maybe he feared something else might go wrong that would prevent him from leaving and didn't trust himself to acknowledge the finality of that moment.

Whatever the reason, Shaw's stride never slowed and he never waved back.