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Life Inside

I Met My Friend in Prison. Now I Doubt His Innocence.

A prison volunteer's belief in second chances faces a difficult test.

“Did the police contact you?”

My heart stopped upon reading this out-of-the-blue text message from my old friend, James. I replied that I was just checking out at the grocery store, but that no, the police had not contacted me. I said I would call him later.

He didn’t tell me what it was about.

James was someone I had met while volunteering in the maximum-security wing of a state prison some years before. I was involved in prison ministry, helping a priest who visited inmates in segregation, where the men are on lockdown for 23 hours a day.

The “seg unit” where James lived was a noisy place. Located in a building with five “ranges” of cells on two sides, the clamor struck all visitors who entered. Men in cages calling to each other, guards shouting codes into radios, the endless clanging of doors shutting and bars rolling.

A split-second behind the noise was the smell: unwashed bodies that only showered every few days; backed-up sewers from clogged toilets; stagnant air; no windows.

Our work in that unit consisted of slowly pacing each range, talking to any of the men who stopped us, offering words of encouragement plus religious items if requested, and praying with anyone who asked.

In all of this hubbub was James, who was black. (I’m white.) We connected initially because he was from the same town where I was attending graduate school, and he hoped to return there after getting out.

I knew only that James was serving a sentence for felony burglary. But our friendship developed over time, our conversations ranging from the reality shows he was watching during his downtime to matters that, I believed, were more profound.

“You gotta leave the street life alone!” I recall once telling him.

“I know,” he answered with a half-smile, likely amused by my overwhelming naivete about everything he had been through.

Eventually James was transferred, and I was out of touch with him until he was released late last year. We reconnected through social media. It was rewarding to see someone once caged now free to live as a human being.

James and I had built up the most important currency that exists in prison: trust. And we would still have it on the outside — or so I thought.

But now James was reaching out to me again, with this strange text message. When I finally called him back, and agreed to meet with him in person, he recounted a harrowing story.

According to James, he and two friends had decided to go out to eat on a day off from work. While they were driving to the restaurant, the police pulled them over, somewhere near downtown. Instead of approaching the car directly, the cops stayed behind, drew their firearms, and ordered them out of the car.

James told me that he and his terrified friends, all of whom were black, complied — but were handcuffed and brought to a police station, where they were interrogated separately. This happened, he said, because his car matched the description of one involved in a robbery of check-cashing place a few days earlier. (Although the security camera there had not picked up the vehicle’s tags, it did capture images of the driver: a stocky African-American man who they claimed look just like James.)

James then described to me one part of his interrogation.

“Your record is terrible!” the police officer apparently said to him.

James claimed innocence.

Then the officer apparently pointed to the hundreds of dollars of cash James had on him, and said, “Where’d you get this money?”

“From my friend,” James replied.

“And where’d he get it from?”

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“He works! He’s a professor!”

James was talking about me (it was true; I’d loaned him that money). He said the officer then left the room, returned a little while later, counted out the money, took my name from James, and gave the money back.

Eventually, James inquired whether he was under arrest. They told him he was not, and released him, having detained him for several hours.

But after James told me this tale, the request came: his car had been impounded by the police, and he needed help getting it back.

“I need you,” James said. “It’s like $500, and it adds $20 a day every day the car stays there.”

James showed me the release paperwork for the car. It stated in legalese that his vehicle had been impounded for its suspected use in a crime.

I was a tangle of emotions. There was the unfairness of what my friend had experienced, in the era of Black Lives Matter. But there was also the fact that I was already tight on money — as well as the lingering skepticism that I, a self-avowed criminal justice reformer, still felt toward this person who had been incarcerated.

I told James I would think about it.

I felt for him, but I didn’t entirely believe him. What if he had done it? Was he putting money from the robbery aside and scamming me for more? After all, his past crime was all too similar: burglary. And he had served so many of his formative years in prison, a college for felons.

What’s more, I knew that James had been working temporary jobs, which not only paid him very little but also left him with plenty of free time, more than enough to commit a robbery.

Yet I had been both a religious volunteer and a teacher in a prison college program. I remembered doing those things out of a belief in the decency and value of people whom society had thrown out. But for what? James had come back to his old neighborhood and was caught up in the criminal justice system again. Had I really “helped” him, I self-centeredly thought to myself? It didn’t matter that much of his life’s circumstances were out his control. Part of me even thought he’d be better off back in prison.

In all of this, I never directly asked James if he had done it. I knew in only a general way that he had been trying to do right, working these jobs, staying close with his family, paying rent for his sister — but I didn’t want to give him an opportunity to lie to me. I couldn’t bear that.

Plus, I wanted to “prove” to him that I was not like them: the police who doubted him. I was his friend.

“I think God is testing me,” James mused, at one point in our conversation that day, seemingly out of nowhere.

“You really think so?” I replied, not knowing what else to say.

“I really do.”

I just looked at him, keeping silent because I simply could not come up with words.

Regardless of my feelings, James still did not have his car, and the price to get it back was increasing every day. So I gave him this new sum of money, and he got the vehicle back. The police never did contact me.

James was overwhelmingly grateful; his car was a lifeline, his only way to get to work. And although I’m happy about that, sometimes I still doubt him — and me. Perhaps I am who God is testing.

Damian Zurro is a visiting assistant teaching professor in the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame.

James, not his real name, has been charged with felony robbery for his alleged role in the incident described in this essay.