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Getting Out of Prison Meant Leaving Dear Friends Behind

“We leaned on each other. We found reasons to laugh while in agony.”

I have spent countless nights like this, lying awake, anticipating life, trying to escape imprisonment through my mind’s eye. I imagine the things I will do once I’m free. Flashes of me laughing with family and friends at a cookout or enjoying the company of a beautiful woman play out in my mind like a silent movie.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I remember the images, so different from these, that swam through my mind on my first night in prison. Hopelessness describes it best. Sorrow, self-pity, and regret stood in the way of my future, along with the steel bars that caged me in. I could not wrap my head around the fact that the next 16 years of my life would be spent in a cell so small that I could lie on my bunk and touch the toilet, sink, and desk without getting up. I was buried alive. Alive but not living.

Suddenly, the door of my cell opens, and an officer says, “Wright, are you ready?" As I rise from my bunk, I am thinking, Is he fucking serious? I’ve been ready since the day the jury foreman read “guilty” off a little index card at my trial.

I grab my mattress, as inmates are made to do, along with a few personal belongings—photo albums, holiday cards, and personal letters—and walk out of my cell. I turn around, mentally bidding farewell to the tomb in which I spent the last nine years of my life. I’ve only told a few people I was going home. How can I look into the eyes of a man who will probably spend the rest of his life in captivity and tell him that my exodus has come? We were comrades in sorrow. What united us was pain. What now could I say to this friend to convince him we are still in this fight together?

As I walk down the gallery saying goodbye to faces that are as familiar as my own family’s, I’m filled with mixed emotions. I am ecstatic, afraid, and guilt-ridden. The guilt comes from all those I will leave behind. All who suffered with me for so many years. We leaned on each other. We found reasons to laugh while in agony. As I pass them, it strikes me how much these men in their cages resemble dogs in a kennel awaiting their fate. Looking at me with eyes that tell how painful their story is. Wishing to be saved, hoping someone will answer their prayers.

I stop in front of the cell of one of my oldest friends. He looks at me and turns away, wishing me well without looking into my eyes. I give him information on how to get in touch with me. When I go to hand him the piece of paper, I can see he has tears in eyes that he is desperately trying to prevent from falling in my presence. He was sentenced to 40 to life. Never in the 10 years that I have known him have I ever seen him in a moment of weakness. And now it is my departure that is the cause of his vulnerability. We hug through the bars that separate us and exchange I love yous. I walk away knowing he was watching the image of me in the mirror he stuck outside his bars become smaller and smaller, until it would be the last he ever sees of me.

I wish they would have released me in the middle of the night while everyone was asleep. I almost feel the need to explain myself to them. I want to shout, “I’m still one of you!” But they would never believe me, because it would be a lie. While they are missing their families, I will be with mine. Their view of the world will be blocked by the bars that lock them in at night, while my new view will be endless no matter which direction I turn my head. And for some reason, I feel the need to apologize for it.

The officer escorting me is becoming impatient as I stop every few steps to say goodbye to someone else. A couple of officers walking by wish me good luck. I’m humored at the thought of luck being the determining factor in my success. I’m also a little insulted. You do not survive trauma and chalk it up to luck. No, I won’t dare shortchange myself in that way. I’ve been crushed like so many of the men I am leaving behind. To overcome that takes defiance and courage, not luck.

“Come on Wright, don’t you wanna get outta here?” the officer says as he waits for me at the center gate that leads to the processing room. I ignore him while struggling to keep the mattress on my shoulder. I begin to have a déjà vu moment. Every facility I entered over the years required me to carry a mattress to the cell in which I would be housed. Suddenly I become upset. Even on the day that the state has determined that I have repaid my debt to it, I’m still treated with the same contempt as when I walked into this place. I drop the mattress and keep walking, now only carrying the few belongings I refuse to leave behind.

The officer escorting me looks confused. I continue walking as he begins calling my name. I pay him no mind. I’m a free man now. I have come too far, overcome so much. The mattress represented the chains that cuffed my wrist so tight that they ached for days. It symbolized every strip search in which I had to bend over and was told to “spread ‘em.” In that moment every dehumanizing second of my incarceration was removed from my flesh.

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Being processed out takes over two hours. My anxiety and excitement about taking my first breath of freedom keeps getting interrupted by inmates who just want to say their goodbyes. The truth is, I think they just want an opportunity to touch the closest thing to freedom most of them will ever come into contact with. They are living through me. Placing themselves in my shoes for the moment they so desperately yearn for.

After the formalities of telling the processing officer my birth date, and other information that verifies my identity, I am allowed to put on the clothes that my family sent a week earlier. This is the first time I have worn street clothes in 15 years. It feels weird. Before my incarceration, I wore my clothes very big and baggy, as was the style at the time. Now all the jeans fit very tight. I stare at one of the porters for assurance that I look cool. He nods his head in approval and says, “That’s what they wearing out there.” I’m not convinced, but other inmates agree.

There is another inmate being released alongside me. Because his family has not sent any clothes for him, he is given court clothes by the facility. This consists of an oversized white dress shirt and a pair of tan slacks that are too small. Very little is said between the two of us as we wait for the officer to drive us to the train station. There is too much going on inside our minds to entertain any chitchat.

After what seems like another hour, we are ushered into a prison van—only this time I am not shackled. Still, all the times I was transported in a van just like this from one facility to the next cross my mind. I feel chills. Maybe they aren’t really letting me go. Maybe this is a trick.

Just as my mind begins to get the best of me, I see this slender woman in a wool hat standing in front of the entrance to the train station. As the van slows down I recognize the beautiful brown face. I frantically start pulling on the door handle, but it won’t budge. The officer gets out and slides open the van door. He says something as I hurry past him into the waiting embrace of my mother.

Finally, I can breathe.

Robert Wright is a research assistant at the Center for Justice at Columbia University. In March, he was released from Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, after being incarcerated for close to 15 years on one count of assault in the first degree.