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Unexpected uncertainty

Elysha and I were listening to Ear Hustle, a podcast about the daily realities of life inside prison, shared by those living it, as well as stories from the outside prison, post-incarceration. It’s a favorite of ours. A fascinating look at the life of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Having been to jail but thankfully never prison, I’ve learned a lot. Exposure to an entirely new world for me.

Then I ran into episode #62, which deals with stories about bail, bail bonds, and “the strange purgatory of waiting to get locked up.”

Before I knew it, I had been instantly transported into the past, and tears were filling my eyes.

Back in 1992, I was arrested, jailed, and eventually tried for a crime I did not commit. The time between my arrest and my trial was more than a year long, which meant that I spent a lot of time wondering if my future was destined for continued freedom or longterm incarceration.

Until I had listened to the episode, I had forgotten how frightening and debilitating that waiting had been. I was also homeless for a period of that time, the victim of a violent crime, and I was facing a $25,000 legal bill that required me (once I managed to get off the streets) to work 90 hours a week at two full time jobs to pay the bill.

Purgatory isn’t the word for that time in my life. It was hell.

But amongst those many miseries, I had forgotten about the enormous weight of uncertainty that results from not knowing if your day in court will result in imprisonment. And when you’re alone, entirely on your own, facing a district attorney, police officers, and a host of witnesses all working hard to put you behind bars. that uncertainty feels good even more profound.

Elysha and I were driving as we listened to the episode, and before I was even aware that it was happening. I was crying. All of those feelings of fear, isolation, and anxiety had returned, and with it, the forgotten memories of a time when I worried that each thing I did would be the last time I would do it for a long time.

I remember eating ice cream with a girl at Dairy Queen and wondering if this would be the last ice cream cone I would eat for years.

I was walking on the beach at the Cape and thinking that I might not feel sand between my toes and hear the sound of surf pounding the shore again for a long, long time.

I wondered how long it would be before I would swim or see a movie or attend a concert again.

This ever-present uncertainty filled every moment of every day with impossible dread and the desperate desire to make every experience count. I searched for moments that I could capture in my mind and hold onto in the event that I faced imprisonment.

I suspect that a lot of people facing the possibility of incarceration feel this way. The men and woman interviewed on Ear Hustle certainly did.

And I suspect that many people are feeling this way in the midst of the pandemic, especially those who are more vulnerable to this disease than most. COVID-19 is frightening enough, but if you have an underlying condition making this virus even more dangerous for you, I suspect that similar feelings of  uncertainty are filling your days.

It’s a terrible feeling. I’m constantly urging my children and my students to embrace uncertainty. Be more flexible with your thinking. Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown.
That advice makes sense when the stakes are low and outcomes relatively benign.
But when the possible outcome is prison or worse, uncertainty can be overwhelming and debilitating. I had put those memories aside a long time ago, probably just after I was declared not guilty, but it turns out that memories often linger, waiting to be resurrected at a moment you least expect it.
Like driving with your wife, listening to incarcerated men and women on a podcast talk about a similar time in their lives, and suddenly finding yourself unexpectedly awash in the past.