Story – Passion


January 3, 1994, was a cold Monday, for me the coldest day of the year. It was the day I went to prison, with a first stop at the Wake County Jail in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had spent most of the day getting ready to go. I don’t mean packing my bags because there was nothing to take, but getting ready emotionally and mentally. I remember locking myself in an upstairs bathroom in my house late in the morning, looking in the mirror at myself and saying, “You can do this. You know you can. You are better than anyone thinks you are.” And then I prayed.

At about 4:00 p.m., that afternoon, Wade Smith, Rick Gammon, my friends and lawyers, walked with me the few blocks from Wade’s office on the Fayetteville Street Mall to the jail lobby, across Salisbury Street, not far away, at which time they promptly disappeared. A kindly female deputy sheriff apologetically put handcuffs on me just before I walked through the sliding glass door. The lock snapped shut behind me.

In a long hall immediately in front of me stood deputy sheriffs, dressed in sharply pressed brown uniforms. They confidently and firmly directed men in orange uniforms from room to room, standing them in front of a camera to have their mug shots taken.

During my time as a criminal defense lawyer, I had often seen lines of inmates, linked to each other by locked chains and wearing those orange jumpsuits, waiting to go into court. Never, in all my life, did I suspect that one day I would be wearing one of those.

At that moment, I heard another officer call my name again. “Mr. Blackburn, we have someone from the Department of Corrections here to interview you for a few minutes. I’m going to have you go upstairs to a small meeting room where we can talk. I entered the small conference room one floor above and took a seat behind a large wooden table. I faced the jailer and an officer from the Department of Corrections.

“We want to know who you’ve prosecuted in the past that you think might now be in prison and want to hurt you.”

“I can’t think of anyone. That was a long time ago, and it was in federal court. The people I convicted went to federal prison.”

The conversation wound down and the correction officer turned to the jailer and asked when when I would leave for Troy, North Carolina. Troy is a small town in the middle of the state where, at that time, a medium-security prison processed all inmates sentenced to anywhere from two to twenty years. Though I would stay in prison for three and one-half months, my sentence was a formal three years, so I was initially headed to Troy.

The officer left the room, and the jailer turned to me. “Jim, I want to tell you something that the officer cannot say to you. He is prohibited by regulation from doing so. And if he should ask me if I said anything to about it to you, I will absolutely deny it. Understand?”

“I understand. What is it?”
“You do not need to be housed in the general population at Troy. You need to ask now to be placed in protective custody. Believe me, I’ve seen these places. You were a prosecutor; you were on the opposite side from these people. It isn’t a question of whether they like you – you’ll be a prize. Somebody can hurt you and brag that he bagged the prosecutor. I have seen cuts and rapes the guards never knew about.”

He had my attention. “So what should I do?”

“When the corrections officer comes back in, ask him about protective custody.”

I did as the jailer suggested. I didn’t think twice about it.

After I went back downstairs, I was placed in a huge room by myself. I sat down on one of several wooden benches and leaned my head against the wall. I looked outside the locked glass doors and saw groups of guys walking into another locked room, with the solid door held open by a sheriff’s deputy. He had clear latex gloves on his hands. Then the door slammed shut.

When the inmates came out, they were happy and dressed in their civilian clothes. The officer kept changing his gloves, even though all he was doing was handling clothes.

Finally, after a three hour wait, it was my turn. The sliding glass door opened, and I was asked to come outside. I walked through the same door as the others had. There was a shower to my left and an open window to the right where a woman was standing.

“Mr. Blackburn, what size do you wear? You need to put this jumpsuit on, those socks too. And, we’ve got some flip flops.”

I looked down at the jumpsuit, sighed, and put it on, zipping up the front. Then, the guard handed me the longest, brightest orange socks I’d ever seen.

“You mean I’ve got to put these on also?”

“I’m afraid so, Mr. Blackburn, regulations.”

I put them on. Finally came the black flip flops. After my clothes were inventoried, I was ready to leave. If it is true that we are what we wear, then I had sunk to the bottom.

Apparently, I had a suite that first night. I did not have to spend the evening with anyone else, and that fact alone made my cell a suite. It had a sliding door with a large window, and one narrow bed with the thinnest mattress I had ever seen.

I was given a bunk roll for the night and told I could make up my bed. Unfortunately I put my head at the wrong end and was too nervous to change it. So I looked out at windows into the hall where officers walked, bathed in light, the entire night.

I didn’t sleep very well that night. It takes a long time to close your eyes the first time in prison. Fatigue ultimately forces you to sleep. You can forget turning over, pulling up the covers, and fluffing the pillow.

I had heard all the stories about prison – taking showers with other inmates and the dangers that lurked therein. So when I was asked early that first morning if I wished to take one, I said no. The officer persisted.

“Are you sure? I can put you in there before anyone else gets up. You can have it by yourself, and I’ll lock the door.”

You’ll lock the door?”

“Sure will. You can take your time.”

I scrambled out of the bed and told the officer, “I’ll be right there.”

Later, I was given the morning newspaper, which belonged to the magistrate. I was told I could look at it if I didn’t mess it up. I saw the pictures and story from the afternoon before when I’d walked into the jail and been handcuffed for the first time.

As I walked out of the jail that morning, the jailer who had spoken with me the night before came up to me. As he put handcuffs around my wrists an shackles around my waist and ankles, he told me, “Mr. Blackburn, I want to wish you a lot of luck. This is just a temporary down for you. You have a lot of friends out there.”

“Thank you a lot. I know that.”

“I need to tell you that we got a call this morning from Channel Five, the local television station, wanting to film you as you walk from the jail to the van that will take you to Troy.”

I sighed and said to him, “well, then, can’t you take these handcuffs off? I’m not going anywhere, and I sure am not going to hurt anyone.”

The jailer looked at me somewhat sympathetically and said he couldn’t do that…it was procedure. But I guess he felt sorry for me and said, “but if your driver doesn’t care, I’ll take them off.”

And for a moment, I felt a small victory. And then I saw the driver. He was a young sergeant dressed in a crisply starched brown uniform. He didn’t look friendly, and he didn’t speak. So the handcuffs stayed on. I didn’t even ask. The two of us walked to a van parked in an enclosed lot next door to the jail. It was time to leave Raleigh.

The sun was bright. The weather was clear. Cars were moving on the road. I realized the awful fact that the world had not stopped while I had been away. On this day, I felt an intense separateness from the city. It was out there. I could look at it, but I could not participate. I was no longer a part of it. I couldn’t walk the streets or drive a car. If I asked the sergeant to stop, he wouldn’t. If I tried to get out, I couldn’t.

As we drove out of the city, the sergeant didn’t speak to me, nor I to him. We rode in silence. Several miles outside of Raleigh, on US 1, he pulled the van over to the side of the road and stopped the car, cutting off the ignition. He got out, still not speaking, and walked over to the door on my side of the van and slid it all the way open. And then he smiled and spoke to me.

“Mr. Blackburn, my wife knows who you are, and that I was going to drive you to Troy today, so she has made for both of us a special thermos of coffee. You are certainly welcome to some. How do you like it?”

“However you got it.”

My driver opened a brown thermos and poured hot steaming coffee into a cup and handed it to me. Coffee has never, before or since, ever tasted so good. For a few moments, the handcuffs were no longer weights on my wrists.

We began to talk. “Tell me about Troy. What do you know about it?”

“Not too much. I’ve never worked there. It’s relatively new and clean. It’s a big place.”

“I was told that I should ask for protective custody when I get there because I once was a prosecutor. You got any thoughts on that?”

“Sure do. Sounds like good advice to me. You never know who’s out to get you. He can be your best friend one minute and turn on you the next. You don’t need that. Somebody like yourself.”

“That’s what I thought you’d say.”

Not long after, our van turned off the main highway onto a narrow state road, and the Southern Correctional Center seemed to rise right out of the earth. After we stopped in front of the prison, I got out of the van by myself, very carefully and very slowly. I still had the chains around my ankles which I wore into the front entrance to the prison. That was a regulation.

I was given brown clothes and was able to keep my shoes, without any laces. I endured my first strip search and was sent on my way. The ankle chains were removed, and I walked with an officer to the area set apart for protective custody.

We first went to a doctor’s office, a large room, secured by a large glass door. A young friendly nurse came up to me, stopped, and smiled and said, “come with me, honey. Unbutton and roll up that sleeve. Let’s take that blood pressure.”

She wrapped the gauge around my arm and started pumping. As she did, she noticed a tear slide down the right side of my cheek. Slowly, she took a finger and wiped it away. She said “Um. Um. Um. Little high. You must be under a little pressure today, darling.”

I thought I was in love. I had found a friend. Actually that day, I had found several friends. The guard at the Wake County Jail who allowed me to take a shower and read the paper, the jailer who wished me good luck, the sergeant who shared his wife’s coffee with me, and now a young nurse who was simply kind.

It has now been a long time ago since that day. But I have never forgotten them, and I try to tell the story of what they did for me every chance I get to whomever will listen. I don’t know their names, and I have not seen them since. Everytime I tell this story, I smile. I have hope. I remember how important they were to me that day. I wish I had told them that.

I never knew passion could be found in a jail or a prison. I never knew it could be found with strangers. I never knew it could be found when I was at the worst and most vulnerable time of my life. But that is where I found it, and that is the day I knew I would survive, though most certainly not by myself.

So it can be with you. It doesn’t cost any money, and it doesn’t take much time to be nice to someone else, even people you do not know, and will likely never see again. I never knew how powerful being kind can be. Try it yourself. Today. Do not wait, or the moment will be lost. You can help people who will not ever know your name.

Doing something for someone else that is good, and expecting nothing in return, will likely give you more than you ever knew. It will make you smile. It will make you happy. It will bring, even if for just a moment, a bit of passion into your life. And, of course, the person or persons to whom you are kind, well…you will not ever be forgotten.

I had found passion in the practice of law when I was a federal prosecutor in the late 1970’s during the murder trial of Jeffrey MacDonald. And then, slowly, over many years, I had simply lost it, and found myself no longer a lawyer or a free person. It was there, on perhaps one of the loneliest days of my life, that I began to find passion and hope and a new beginning again. So it was with me, and so it can be for you.

by Jim Jenkins, Staff Writer for the News and Observer

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