Flanked by corrections officers, the prisoners gazed at the outside world as they stepped up the walkway of the hospital in the countryside. They had come from San Quentin Prison (inmate population 5,256), sixty miles to the south. The name and location of the hospital was not previously disclosed to them, and the remote town of Sebastopol was unknown to them. There were a dozen prisoners – donning orange jumpsuits, shackles around their wrists and ankles, chained together like dogs. They had arrived to receive medical treatment for varying problems. Most were there for minor procedures, namely colonoscopies, but a few were to receive more serious operations such as having their gallbladders removed or their kidney stones broken apart into small pieces. Just as the prisoners are not informed beforehand of where they would be sent for their operations and who the doctors that will be operating on them are, the hospital staff is not informed of the names of the prisoners, but instead reference them by their inmate identification numbers.
The prisoners walking into the hospital are criminals convicted of murder, rape, or involuntary manslaughter, and are serving sentences ranging from twenty years to life. For all of them, the day trip to the hospital is the first time in years that they have seen the world outside the confines of the San Quentin. Among the shackled prisoners stepping up the walkway was James Young, a sixty-five year-old inmate. He had blue eyes and looked to the bright sky and the tantalizing mountains in awe. He marveled at the vibrant colors of the fertile landscape with its green pastures and rolling hills, the perfect clouds and little birds. He yearned to be part of the natural world again, to be free and experience the beauty of the outdoors and to do things right – if only for a day, for an hour – but this he knew this would never be.
James was serving a sentence for a crime he had committed in 1983, when he had murdered an innocent man in a car heist. He was apprehended, charged, convicted, and sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After the trial his pregnant wife of seven years had filed the divorce papers and made a sole visit to James to tell him what he already knew. Their final exchange is seared in his mind as a heartbreaking and painful memory. James and Pauline were separated by a pane of glass. Tears were streaming down her face as she cradled the bulge of her stomach and wept. “James, I can’t go on like this. I have to do what is best for me and my baby. I’m sorry, James, I’m so sorry. I love you.” And with that she stepped away forever. Only through letters written by old friends was James informed that she had given birth to their daughter, and several years thereafter she remarried. Pauline now had a stable life, a good family, and a well-paying job that she enjoyed. She had become a surgical nurse and was working in the post-anesthesia care unit of the operating room at the hospital that day.
The prisoners were led into the outpatient room and they shuffled into chairs or gurneys depending on the type of operation or procedure they were to receive and the order in which it was to be performed. James was told to lie in a gurney and once he did a guard came over and handcuffed his ankle shackles to the railing. He was visibly nervous about the operation. His gallstones were to be removed and he did not like the idea of being gassed into unconsciousness, having his belly slit open, and tools inserted into his body to remove something that he knew had to go. A nurse came over and had him sign several documents related to the operation.
“Don’t worry,” she said as she prepped his IV, “It’s a very common operation.”
“Will there be a lot of pain afterwards?”
“Some, but they’ll do what they can in recovery to alleviate any pain by giving you pain killers.”
James was not registering all of what she was saying as he nodded in contest for her to insert the IV needle into a vein in his hand. As she taped down the needle he contemplated his position amongst these people in this new surrounding. He thought: “Who is this nurse and what is her life like? What must she think of me? I will never be free like these people, like these nurses and guards, like the people I left behind. I will never get to go out there and grasp that land and breathe that air. No more freedom, no more love, no more life. I will never be a part of this world again.”
He was the first of the prisoners to go. An operating room nurse and assistant came to retrieve him. They were all smiles as they wheeled him down the hall, a corrections officer following close behind. They passed a courtyard and James saw the lush plants and colorful flowers growing outside. There were two people sitting in the courtyard holding each other in sadness and James thought that they must have lost a loved one, and he too grew sad for he knew that no such grieving by others will ever occur over his death because there would be no one who cared.
The double doors to the operating room were pulled open and the air was cold inside. James peered from side to side at the incomprehensible activity of the busy workers – people who knew freedom and were disciplined enough hold jobs and were dutifully filling their roles in a society where he had but one role to play which was the very lowest – that of the prisoner. His station in life was lower than that of a slave, for even a slave makes some contribution to society, whereas James made none and would die in prison.
He was wheeled under the fluorescent lights and into the operating room and tried to understand all the foreign machines in the room as nurses wearing latex gloves and face masks helped transfer him from the gurney to the table and then strapped him down. He could see in there eyes that they were kind and he could tell they were smiling and he smiled back. The anesthesiologist placed a breathing mask over James’ face and administered and injection of a milky white anesthetic. “Alright, buddy, you’re gonna go to sleep now,” said the man. The surgeon stepped into the operating room as James slipped into unconsciousness.
James woke up to the loud voice of the anesthesiologist saying, “Wake up, buddy, we’re all done now.” He had already been transferred back to the gurney and the guard was placing the shackles on his ankles and handcuffing them to the rails at his feet. James was nauseous and tossed his head as he was taken out of the out of the operating room the recovery unit. There, a corrections officer stood by and the anesthesiologist stayed with James for a minute while the recovery nurse confirmed that his vitals were stable.
“It think we’re fine, doctor.”
James saw her and whispered her name. Pauline had not looked into his face but her line of sight ran up this man’s arms and her heart sank upon recognizing the tattoo of a panther on his outer bicep.
She looked to his face and cupped her hands over her mouth and gasped. She looked into his face, and the memories and broken promises and heartbreak came rushing back.
“Hi baby,” said James, wiggling his fingers.
“Oh my God, oh my God...”
“You look like an angel.”
She clasped his hands and burst into tears, leaning her head toward his chest.
“It’s okay,” whispered James.
The guard stepped in and said, “Mamn, is everything okay?”
“Yes…yes. I know this man. Everything is okay.” She turned to James and asked, “Are you in pain?”
Pauline held her head on his chest and wept. On a desk in the recovery room was a picture of a young woman holding her infant son and they were the living flesh of James himself. James held the head of his former lover and wife for the last time in his life. He thought about how it’s a curious thing that peoples lives cross and weave together like thread and then so often glide away thereafter. Everyone moves off in their own direction, having friends and families, dreams and struggles, experiencing profound and beautiful and melancholy things which are unique to their own lives and independent of those whom they had loved in their past. And ultimately these men and women will pass away, and so too shall everyone else that we have ever crossed paths with or not. James thought about this as he closed his eyes and embraced the only woman he has ever loved, and tears streamed down his face.