The prison in Huntsville, Texas was a lot less ominous than I was expecting. Everyone was extremely nice and helpful . . . from the guards who inspected our rental car, to the guards who checked us in and scanned us, to the guards who supervised the visiting area. Even the other prisoners were . . . well . . . nice.
I halfway expected to burst into tears upon seeing my jailed deaf dad. I imagined him in an orange jumpsuit and flip flops, shackled and with a beaten spirit. Instead, he came into the visiting area with his trademark strut clad in tennis shoes, a white short-sleeved shirt over white thermal underwear and white pants, and gave a big smile and wave through the glass.
"See, there's nothing to cry about," I assured myself. "He is totally fine. Totally."
The eight years that have passed since I last saw him have not been kind. He has more tattoos and a receding hairline (no gray, though!) which is to be expected of a man fast approaching 59 years in age, but his teeth. . . I don't know what happened to them! A few of his top back teeth have been pulled and a few others knocked out and his formerly beautiful white front teeth are deeply yellowed with spacing in between them that was never there before. The gaps from his missing teeth cause his cheeks to sink a little more than normal, making him appear skinnier than he already is.
His dingy thermal shirt, which has sleeves too short to fit his long arms, are stitched in some places and holey in others. I started noticing how the uniform of every other prisoner had a bright white hue. Dad's was a dull ecru at best.
His glasses haven't escaped injury either. The nose pads are missing and they are clumsily taped together in various spots broken during his many fights with other inmates. Every time he adjusted them, I noticed how perfectly the metal frame fit into the fleshy divots on the bridge of his nose. Another man's fury imprinted on Dad's face.
"Who did this to you?" I thought. Angry. Disgusted. Embarrassed. "I'll fix this. They can't do this to you. We're better than this. Aren't we?"
"What made them do this to you?" I revised internally. "You provoked them, didn't you? You accused them. You called them names. You insulted them. Just keep to yourself, Stupid."
Despite his gruff exterior, there is still an impish charm that even the strongest steel bars can't cage. It is so apparent in his smile and eyes and they way he tells a story, that my boyfriend Christian and I both wanted to give him all our money. Buy him new clothes and glasses and whatever food and books and periodicals he wanted. This is the same charisma that has allowed him to charm woman after woman after woman -- none of whom are deaf -- to fall in love with him, learn sign language and open their homes to . . . a scoundrel.
I spent much of our four hours together translating to Christian as my dad regaled us with tales of his various escapdes from his days in the "Free World", many which involved either weed, drinking or gambling. At one point we were all laughing so loudly everyone around us stopped and stared. One story he shared:
A family friend, Clyde, also deaf, was riding in his car with his young, hearing daughter Cherie. At a stop light a stunningly beautiful woman pulled up beside them. Clyde, wanting to get her attention and look cool, cranked up the radio and began grooving in his seat to the "music" he could feel but not hear while staring over at the woman. Cherie kept tugging on his arm trying to get his attention and Clyde kept brushing her off before finally getting annoyed and turning to see what Cherie wanted to tell him. "WHAT?" Clyde angrily signed. Cherie pointed to the radio and signed back "You're dancing to the NEWS!"
The next day we repeated the process of driving two hours from downtown Houston, having the car inspected and us getting scanned. The chocolate chip cookies and gum I had stuffed in my pockets remained undetected. I was hoping for an hour or two of a "contact visit" so I could pass him my secret stash. A stick of gum sells for $1.00 on the inside. That fat pack of Juicy Fruit could result in a whole lot of loot for Dad! I caught Christian, a proud smile on his face, watching me try to turn a $20 bill into a square tiny enough for Dad to hide in his shoe. "You're so awesome," he beamed.
This time we were greeted with a more tired looking version of the man we had seen the day before. He signed, "I just woke up, took a sh*t, brushed my teeth, sat down when the guard showed up and said I had a visitor." He looked tired and perhaps a little depressed. He had a very long list of items he wanted to be sure to tell us before our time ran out.
-- Teach Christian the sign he made up for the phrase, "Come here, asshole."
-- Smuggle in a $100 bill: He can buy 8 packages of loose tobacco and make over $500 profit and not have to do any of the selling. My $20 just wouldn't cut it.
-- Get him the Sunday New York Times. Just Sunday . . . you know, to see what the big deal is. Oh, and Discovery Magazine . . . he really loves reading about new technology.
-- Go through his boxes of photographs and send him specific photos.
-- Buy him fancy stationery with matching envelopes. He can sell other inmates a set of two pieces of stationery and one envelope for $0.75.
-- Send a letter on his behalf to his friend Larry who was transferred to another prison after suffering severe beatings at the hands of the guards because they found drawings of nude children in Larry's cell during a shake down. "Larry is not a child molester, he's just a flasher! And they beat him like that? Larry said they weren't drawings of children, just midgets -- not dwarves -- midgets."
-- Get him a new pair of glasses. The next time I visit, pretend the glasses are mine during security check in. Then, during a contact visit, we will swap out his old, broken glasses with the new pair I smuggled in.
And, most importantly:
-- Help him write a letter for an appeal: There was a lack of evidence in his case, he insists. He spent a great deal of time telling me about his version of events the night his girlfriend Gloria* was nearly killed. He dramatically acted out a story: "She was mad because we didn't have money for more beer. She was already drunk and wanted to fight with me. She tried to kill herself with my knife by cutting her own throat. In the struggle to get the knife away from her, she was stabbed a few times. She wanted me to go to jail for it so she could keep my apartment and all my things. Twenty years? Why me? Why me? Why me?"
If he doesn't win an appeal, he has six more years till he is eligible for parole. He shook his head slowly in disbelief. His chin wrinkled and his pursed lips turned downward.
"I will tie sheets around my neck and hang myself," he signed.
"No," I scoffed, scanning his face for a sign he wouldn’t do it.
He stared back, scanning my face for one good reason not to.
We sat silently for a very, very long time.
*Named changed to protect identity.