The Incarcerated Imagination

I entered the courtroom through the prisoner’s door. My lawyer entered the courtroom through the door that lead to freedom. A Sheriff escorted me to the jury box, where prisoners sat for routine court appearances. My lawyer walked alone to the desk where the district attorneys sat. From across the room, I watched them quietly discuss something.

My lawyer looked at me and nodded. I nodded back. He turned around and walked out the door he had come in.

One of the prosecutors approached the podium and addressed the court, “Your Honor, we have decided to drop all charges against Mr. Hahn.”

The judge looked at me and said, “You can go home, now”.

My knees weakened and I fell to the floor. I wailed loudly as I tried to crawl into the seat behind me. And then I woke up. I stared at the dull white ceiling of my cell.

I used to dream about being free. Early on, while I was still facing a life sentence and had yet to be sent to prison, I dreamt of the miraculous. The impossible.

But the miraculous never happened and I was sentenced to prison. Not for life, but for long enough that there was no sense thinking about home. Prison was home.

As the years went by, I continued to dream about freedom. I would be somewhere that wasn’t the penitentiary. A park. My grandparents’ house. A randomly constructed locale that existed only in my imagination.

Sometimes I would be with family. Sometimes with friends. And in every dream I would have a semi-lucid moment in which I would say to myself, “Wait. How did I get here? Why am I free? I am not supposed to be here”.

This dream scenario would play itself out over and over again, and would eventually get to the point at which I would start manufacturing my reasons for being free.

I’d calculate how many years I still had until my parole date and say to myself, “Oh yeah, they must’ve let me out early”.

Sometimes, I’d think that I must’ve escaped prison and the dream would take on the desperate, paranoid, and terrifying trajectory of figuring out how to avoid capture once again.

And in one dream, I remember a friend asking me how it was that I was able to come home so early. “I’m not home,” I responded. “I’m only out temporarily. Like a field trip. I have to go back to prison soon”.

Eventually, maybe five or so years into my sentence, I stopped dreaming about being free. I only dreamed about prison. Everything that happened in the dreamscape, even if it happened to take place in a location that appeared to be outside of penitentiary walls, nonetheless took place in the context of prison. The people were from prison. The sense of surveillance that characterized every waking moment had pervaded my dream world. In addition to having an incarcerated reality, I had an incarcerated imagination.

It wasn’t until I had less than a year left that I become unable to avoid thinking about the fact that I would be paroling. That I wouldn’t be waking up in a jail or a prison or a cell or a dormitory. This brought me a great deal of anxiety. The free world had become so unfamiliar. So daunting.

Though I was no longer capable of dreaming about freedom, I nonetheless found myself daydreaming about it. It wasn’t freedom, per say, that I thought of; instead, it was the moment I achieved it. The moment of parole.

I imagined walking away from prison for the last time.  I imagined my parents waiting for me. I would kiss the ground, I thought to myself. In my reveries I’d cry softly. What will it be like to leave this place? How will I respond? Will I come apart at the seams?

At midnight on February 9th, 2012, I completed my 2,485th day of continuous incarceration. I was in the fire camp office and I watched the headlights of a car descend the driveway towards me. My parents stepped out and walked through the door.

I stood beside a cabinet which held the photographs of all the men currently incarcerated at the camp. A low, saloon-style gate separated me from my parents. Tears welled up but did not descend. My heart pounded. I was weak and anxious.

“Hi, guys,” I said to my parents. My voice was soft and trembling. I was wearing a San Jose Sharks jersey, fully personalized by the team. “It’s time to go”.

Officer Martinez, who’d been standing beside me the whole time, walked over to the C.O.’s desk, sat down, and picked up the phone to call me out.

“Inmate Hahn. F-as-in-Frank, five, two, nine, nine, five.” He said. “Yes, he is ready.” He paused and looked up at the cabinet beside me. “The new count is seventy seven. Yes, seventy seven.”

“Matt,” Officer Martinez said and handed me a clipboard with my parole paperwork. My mugshot was stapled to the top. “Sign the top paper, that’s for the receipt of all your money”.

As I signed the paperwork, he stood up, walked to the cabinet, and slid open its glass door. He grabbed my photo, handed it to me, and then erased the number seventy eight and wrote seventy six. “You’re gone, man.”

I looked at my parents and they smiled. I took a step towards the gate, but was stopped by Officer Martinez’s voice.

“Matt”, he said. “Its been a pleasure having you here. Its people like you that make doing this job worthwhile.”

“Thank you, “ I said and looked him in the eyes.

“And I want you to know that I couldn’t say it before but I can say it now. I consider you my friend and I want the best for you”. He opened his arms and we hugged.

I stepped through the saloon-style gate and into my parents arms. I did not cry. I did not kiss the ground. It would take some time before I could do that.

In the early months following parole, I started to have moments in which I realized that I was no longer in prison. I’d be driving down the freeway and a certain song would play on the radio or the sun would strike a chord with the clouds, and I’d suddenly remember where I’d been just a short time before. That I was no longer there.

“Wait”, I’d say to myself. “I’m not supposed to be here”. Like I was still in a dream from the early years of my incarceration. Like there was some sort of glitch in the matrix. And then I’d realize that I was, in fact, free and I’d cry. Blubbering like a moron down the freeway, grateful to be alive.

These moments don’t come as often anymore. Anniversaries usually bring them. April, when I went in. February, when I came home. And if I’m lucky, I have a couple more of them throughout the year.

Six years later, I still dream of prison. It is always terrifying and I always say to myself, “Wait. How did I get here?” I then go through a long list of all the crimes I hadn’t commit and all the people who might be out to get me. I have yet to offer myself the consolation that I am there on a field trip.

Maybe that’s just how it is now. Wherever I happen to be, I somewhere, subconsciously, wonder if I may be dreaming. When I am supposed to be serving a life sentence and I am not, it’s easy to feel like I am perched somewhere between a dream and reality. I will always, in some capacity, feel like I am on borrowed time. Borrowed free time.

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