After reading “A Christmas Carol” and watching three movie versions (two in black-and-white) of the Charles Dickens classic, a group of inmates who took college classes from me (as part of a community-college outreach program) were moved to chronicle their own ghosts of the past, present, and future.
Are their stories what you would call "Dickensian"? Yes, I think so. Admittedly, guns didn't play a large role in any Dickens novel but street crime ("Oliver"), selfish neglect ("The Old Curiosity Shop"), regret ("Great Expectations"), and family disappointments ("David Copperfield") certainly did.
Here are some of the tales as told by my inmate-student.
An Urban Tale: A 28-year-old inmate was prompted to recall his own story of “wrong paths, regret, and pain.” He wrote of “disturbing memories” that were “life-altering to myself and those close to me, and even to some people I never met.”
“When I was 17 years old, my grandfather – my best friend – died of a stroke in the back of a cab, because the cab driver didn’t think straight. Then I didn’t think straight.
“I was getting a shape-up on 152nd Street, when a homie burst in telling me I had to get right over to Lincoln Hospital. No oxygen was going to my grandfather’s brain. He was brain dead. I saw them pull the plug. That’s when something in me died.
“I blamed the cab driver for not going straight to the ER.
“For some reason he kept circling, while my grandfather met his lonely death in the back of a dirty cab.
“I remember changing clips as I dumped round after round into the cab base: two clips and an empty 357 later, I made my escape. That was the night everything changed. I had hit the dispatcher.
“Mohawk, Oneida, Auburn, Elmira, Coxsackie, and Comstock – prisons, I remember them all vividly. Scrooge had his ghosts, I have mine.
“It’s pitch black, it’s raining, but I’m not getting wet. I’m shooting and shooting into the cab base. They’re hitting – they’re hitting my grandfather, but not piercing. The bullets come back and hit me, and they’re piercing.
“I shot away my teenage years, and my twenties. But I’m in a good place now – not ’cause I’m in prison but because of what I see for myself coming out. I’m distancing myself from old dreams."
Dreams that don’t die: An inmate who lost a brother to gunfire wrote of a Scrooge-like specter: the threat of a lonely death. Networking for him is a delicate process: “I am too paranoid to befriend a new face and too cautious to trust a familiar one."
“I catch myself imagining he’s with me, walking and talking in a peaceful place. Happy. Nothing can harm us. Nothing to worry about. Then I realize that it’s not my brother, ’cause my brother’s shot dead. So this person is a demon playing tricks on me....
“If I hadn’t been away, doin’ my bid, I might have been able to talk him out of tryin’ that robbery; talk him out of carryin’ a gun. But I was in prison – on gun charges.
“I wish I could just close my eyes on that dream. Don’t have a good one to replace it.”
Dreams open eyes: Another inmate who lost his brother to gunfire is dubbed “preacher” – mockingly by some in “the general population” (of the prison) and respectfully by his classmates. He lost his wife to cancer and yearns to prevent the preventable.
“Cancer is a stray bullet. I couldn't do anything about it. But I have seen friends and neighbors ‘offed’ – some by stray bullets and some not stray. I got to take aim on those....
“Like Nicodemus, I am born again mentally. I close my eyes so dreams can open them.”
The Present as a Gift: A seemingly shy soft-spoken inmate (who wears a prayer cap and shawl) wrote and spoke about his abilities as a hustler – his blessing and his curse. He explained that he was always able to get what he or his family needed – for example, money to fix up his grandmother’s house. She lived there for 30 years and then it burned because of old wiring and fuel lines. But “needs" weren’t his downfall: He freely admitted that he was always able to get what he wanted and that his “wants” got him prison time – which, he admits, is what he needed. He’s come to think of an “ejection button” – which, in his visions, becomes a rejection button, of a sort:
“Which ghost would haunt me the most? I have to say my present: I’m not 100 % out of the woods yet. I know I should be done with the streets, but I still have thoughts of making fast money. So to keep from going down, I have this ejection button – it’s my mental picture of my little girl.
“Then I ‘see’ somebody’s daughter as a pregnant teen, an HIV mom, in an abusive relationship....
“I know I blame my father for me being in trouble. I don’t want my daughter (she’s ten) to feel about me the way I feel about him..... I have to be out there, steady, for my daughter.... They call the ‘here-and-now’ the Present, because it is a gift. Like most kids, I thought the bigger the gift, the better the present. The best present I can give to my daughter is my presence. I have to do everything I can to keep my present as short as possible, even just to be outside just a day sooner.”
As the reader of these essays I can only hope that, like Scrooge, my inmate-students will find that it's not too late to learn from their ghosts.
Joseph H. Cooper teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University. His “Pauses and Moments” stories appear at PsychologyToday.com as “Rumblings from the lane next to the off ramp.”