Numbers

In prison, like a lot of the world, we rely on numbers. Every day, every eight hours, we count our population in order to prevent and detect escape. The lively presence of two hundred and twenty some odd offenders scattered across two or four facilities and roughly ten buildings must be accounted for at all costs. At the Training Academy we learned of the rare occasions when inmates had been counted two or three times before anyone realized they were dead! Now we have procedures to avoid repeating that error.

Technically, during count time, I’m supposed to verify my students’ DOC number and living units. Computers simplify the process, and so at 10:30 AM sharp, I count. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. All present and breathing.

A substitute coming in for the count sheet interrupts something I’m saying about summaries. No one is listening anyway. “Martinez…” “Two, five, eight, oh,” mumbles Martinez. “Smith!” ” Twofivefivenine,” Smith says so fast that it sounds like one number. And so on. I know they have done terrible things to people; some of them will never serve time for the worst of their crimes. Even so, I see them as people, my students, and I hate how everything comes back to their DOC number. They must hate it too because when their sentence terminates, they call it “killing my number.”

They say there is safety in numbers. Over the summer I was asked to help a pimply-faced kid with his writing and math so he could pass the GED. He barely had a year with us, not enough time to help him with his high school diploma. Passing the GED in that time seemed nigh impossible too, he couldn’t even multiply or divide! We all had a lot of work to do to prepare him for life after prison. After some work with paragraphs, I began drilling him on his multiplication facts. He had memorized 80% of the multiplication table before I had to leave to deliver my second child.

Two times four equals eight. Eight weeks we spent on thesis statements, multiplication worksheets, and how he grew up in a trailer park in a small town four hours west. Is it a blot on my soul that I’d like to see that park, sans people of course, be blown away in the wind, swept under the river, or burned clean off the map? Then so be it. When I visit my parents I have to drive by this blemish, and it turns me cold to know some of the horrors that have occurred in that place.

Six times six equals thirty-six. He met with mental health providers an astonishing number of times in the two months leading up to his early death. The math made it seem like he had a second home on their couch–if they have a couch.

Zero times any number equals zero. From others I learned of countless phone calls and appeals we provided at our expense to his family to come, please come. Just call, he begged. No one came.

One times three equals three. It only took a few minutes to erase the painful memories and the agony of the moment forever. Only three people, the family was told, only three, could come visit him in the hospital before he was proclaimed dead.

Eight times two equals sixteen. Sixteen showed up at the hospital the very next day to squeeze in next to his young death bed. Sixteen. Did he ever know? How did they feel then, sweating and crying beside themselves? Who can know the mysteries of the heart? But in the reports I’m sure all we concern ourselves with are the minutes and the hours and who called 9-1-1 when. There’s surety in numbers. We can tuck those under our armpits and carry them confidently to court, if need be.

One times one equals one. One phone call, one letter, one visit might have made the difference in one life. Not one life, but all the lives touched by his tragedy. Tomorrow I will count my class. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. But him we count among our dead.

His name appears time to time as I find old lists where someone forgot to remove him. Four months later I still have to pause at the sight of, not his number, but his name. I have to remind myself to breathe and stop myself from crying. I couldn’t tell you why or for whom I cry. Is it for him? Is it for his family? Is it for a world that permits such atrocities? For someone with deplorable facial recognition, I’m bothered that I can still see his face, and still anticipate it in the hallways during movement.

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About hey miss

A teacher. A prison guard. I used to think that was like oil and water. Like lightening and metal. Some days it is. Some days it's magic.
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