An unlikely friendship, imprisonment and how this website came to exist
Feature image credit: Jason Farrar (Flickr)
This past week, my apartment complex was going through a Spring cleaning. Garbage bins were brought in for residents who wanted to throw away their old, unwanted items. Their disposal was a service entirely paid for by the strata corporation.
While I didn’t dispose of anything, I did go through many old photos, letters and papers, thinking it was time for me to clean up some clutter. In this endeavour I came across a letter I received back in 2006–a letter I kept because it was the first time I’d received a letter from someone in prison.
The sender was a man by the name of Carter Michael Prins Jr., a name which meant nothing to me when I initially received the letter until I remembered I had once been imprisoned for seven hours with a man I knew as “Prince” in Omaha, Nebraska back in 2002. I now get that the pronunciation of the man’s last name and the hereditary royal title are one and the same.
Now I will urge anyone reading this–whether you are a family member, my girlfriend, my boss, coworker, friend or someone who simply stumbled haphazardly upon my newly-created website–to hear me out before passing judgment. I’m aware of the semiotic relationship between incarceration and a criminal action, but as you’ll soon discover, my involvement in this story is much more innocent.
In 2002, estranged from family and in search of meaning to my own life, I travelled across Canada and the United States. After months of travelling, now broke, exhausted and having travelled through six Canadian provinces and 48 US states, I boarded a Greyhound bus from California headed for no fixed address in Ontario.
One of the stops on the way home was in Carson City, Nevada. After a 20-minute break, those passengers who had been on the bus previously were boarded. New passengers boarding in Carson City would follow. What was unusual about this stop was that the bus driver had closed the door shut, and stood at the front of the bus to make an announcement.
Citing a Greyhound security protocol, he advised passengers that an ex-convict would be boarding the bus. No other information was provided, and as soon as the driver positioned the microphone back above the driver’s side window, everyone looked out the right-side windows of the vehicle, trying to isolate which of the four people standing outside the doors of the bus was more likely to be the ex-con.
“It’s the big, black guy,” said an older-looking woman seated a couple of rows in front of me.
I was 18, and remember thinking how this was my first direct contact with racism in America. No one knew for sure which of these new passengers had a criminal past. It just so happened that, while the woman’s comments were ignorant, they also happened to be correct.
The last of the four people to board was a giant African-American man, towering over everyone at a height of well over six feet. His shoulders were as wide as that of a small car and his biceps were protruding through a tight, grey polo shirt.
There was a silence on the bus as the passengers took to their seats, and the first available seat this man saw was closer to the back of the bus–an aisle seat right next to mine.
“This seat taken,” he said to me with a smile.
“Not at all,” I replied.
The vehicle slowly backed out of the terminal’s gate. I can’t remember if I wasn’t thinking anything or if my mind was simply frozen in a state of fear, but after a few moments, he’d break the silence by introducing himself.
“How are you doing today? My name’s Prins. Do you know how long before we hit Chicago?”
I introduced myself, and told him that I wasn’t heading for Chicago but that the bus would be in Illinois in a couple of days.
“14 years in the penn makes you appreciate home.”
It took about five minutes before I put it together. The “penn” was the penitentiary, and for two hours until the next stop on the route, I’d remained silent. I was shocked that he offered up that information, and I was starting to think that it was an effort on his part to intimidate me. I pretended to sleep until the bus would inevitably stop for a dinner break.
After a quick stop in Reno, there would be a driver switch in Lovelock, in central Nevada. Everyone disembarked looking to have something to eat.
I’d kept an eye on Prins, curious about the behaviours of a recently-released convict. He casually paced around the terminal cafeteria and to my surprise, seemed unwilling to eat anything. Closer to the end of the stopover, he approached my table looking for a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke,” I replied, apologizing almost profusely due to what I now realize was an illogical fear that he’d somehow strike at me.
“It’s alright, good for you,” he said, before inviting himself to sit down for a more profound conversation.
He’d explained to me that the prison released him with a book of free meal coupons only redeemable at Carl’s Jr, $4.00 in cash and a bus ticket back to Chicago. I now understood that the reason he wasn’t hungry was because he wasn’t at a Carl’s Jr.
Under the pretense of going to the washroom, I bought a ham and cheese sandwich and a pack of Camels. When I got back to the table, he seemed to be staring blindly at it, as if looking for a structural flaw. He wasn’t aware of my presence until I put the packed sandwich and the cigarettes in his hand.
“Let’s go have a smoke Prins,” I said, seemingly now unafraid of this man’s past transgressions.
As simple as that moment was, the saddest part of it was how confused Prins was when confronted with kindness. He smiled and thanked me to a degree that was just becoming annoying. It had also been the first time, outside of stealing a cigarette from my mother to share with friends, that I had been willing to smoke.
What followed was the telling of his whole story; a story which was not all unlike the expectations my friends back home had of me. Problems with my mother during my teen years exposed me to the perils of homelessness and the struggle to simply survive. Although I had a fortitude to stay away from drugs and bad crowds, most of the people I went to school with firmly believed that I’d end up as a vagabond drug addict dead before hitting my 20th birthday.
Prins expressed remorse for the crime that saw him serve eight years in prison–dealing drugs. He’d have six more years added to his sentence after an altercation with another inmate led to a cafeteria fight where one person ended up paralyzed. That day was his second full day of freedom.
What dawned on me that day, on the road to Omaha, Nebraska was that here, sitting next to me, was a man who made a mistake, paid his debt to society and was being released with little help from his former captors–the US correctional system–to simply allow him passage home to Chicago. He explained that the $4.00 in cash he’d been given was meant to use pay phones, communicating with a parole officer in Chicago while en route. He ended up using it on an ice cream sundae in Salt Lake City.
The next major stopover would be in Omaha, Nebraska. The bus would drop us off at the terminal and leave to be cleaned. A new bus and driver would be coming three hours later to take us closer to our final destinations.
Prins; however, wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Prins was in front of me in the lineup of people looking to board the bus. When he got to the driver’s kiosk and presented his ticket, the driver refused him. At first, the discussion was polite and composed, but Prins was forced to explain his circumstances. Standing immediately behind him, I’d overheard that the bus ticket provided to Prins from the prison he’d recently left was for a different bus company–an interstate bus company based in Nevada. Greyhound was refusing to honour the ticket.
With the line now held up, some people were beginning to get impatient. The driver asked Prins to stand aside and let people board, with promises that the administrative issue would be resolved once everyone was on the bus. Prins refused. The shouting started, and the problem escalated to a violent climax as Prins ripped out the kiosk where the driver was inspecting tickets and threw it at the nearest window.
My crime was trying to de-escalate the situation, and when the police arrived to me expressing outrage at the terminal’s manager for not letting Prins onto the bus, the cops took both Prins and I to jail. From the moment the cuffs were slapped on, Prins stopped discussing his own issues and provided officers with a persistent defence of my actions.
“He was only trying to help me. He did nothing wrong. Why are you taking him in. He’s 18 years old. He’s trying to get to Canada.”
When I was questioned, officers were struggling to understand why a Canadian was associated with an ex-con. They perceived inconsistency in my story when there was none–I had only known Prins for two days, I’d known little about him other than what he offered me.
They told me that, since I was intent on leaving the country, that they would hold me until they could further investigate. My one phone call was to my friend in California, just to let them know I’d be delayed in getting home. My family was in no position to help, and I doubted if they’d be willing. Though I was nervous, I knew that at some point they’d realize I’d done nothing wrong and release me without any travel restrictions.
Thankfully, I had been in a police station holding cell, and given that I had not been charged with a crime, the officers were a bit more lenient. When I asked an officer if I could be given something to write with, I was surprised when one of them presented me with a brand-new notebook and pen. I wasn’t a writer back then–I just wanted something to doodle on while I passed the time.
Within hours, an officer came to get me and told me I was free to go. There were no apologies, but they did offer me a ride with another constable to the bus terminal, considering I had no prior knowledge of where anything was in Omaha. Before I left, I’d asked the officer if I could leave my contact information with him so he could give it to Prins. I can’t quite remember why I wanted to leave this man with my contact information, but I thought it important at the time. I scribbled my phone number and E-Mail address onto a page from my new notebook and ripped off the page. I had no idea, but on the way out of the basement holding cell area, I’d walk past where Prins was being held.
He extended his hand, and as I reciprocated, my hand disappeared in the grasp of his gigantic hands. I’d felt like I was bailing on him, but I think he already knew he was going back to jail. What was remarkable about those few seconds when saying goodbye was the way in which he said “thank you”. It was as if those words, expressed in that specific combination, were foreign to him. It almost seemed like the intonation was off–which made it that much more genuine.
I didn’t befriend anyone else on the trip home and I stayed out of trouble. Much of the trip was spent in silent reflection. It was only after I crossed the border at the Detroit-Windsor border crossing that I began to write Prins’ story in my notebook. Once the task was done, I wrote some more. The new notebook I’d been given was full before I reached Montreal: my final destination.
In the 15 years since I met him, I’ve written a lot of things, won awards for essays, written speeches for powerful men and women in business and have had a few blogs. But it was this encounter with an ex-convict that made me realize the power of the written word. I realized then that everyone, no matter how young or old, no matter their social status in life, has a story. As I write this, I find myself puzzled that it took me 15 years to tell the story that really got me started in writing.
This week, when I stumbled onto his 2006 letter from a Michigan prison, I realized that my writing stems directly from my experience with Prins. The realization that I was decent at it, that I enjoyed it, that I wanted to continue with it originates from that formative, teachable experience. Over those two days, seven hours of which were spent in the custody of Nebraska law enforcement officials, I’d witnessed racism in America, crime in America, and the demeanour of a good-natured person who, had he been given the chance, only wanted to go home.
In response, I’ve relaunched my own personal website in an effort to get back into writing. I’ve left many projects unfinished and been distracted with other entertaining hobbies–painting and computer programming being the main two. Since much of this website will be a space for me to write, and given that my life in writing began by such a unique experience with Prins, I’ve finally come around to writing out his story.
To those of you who reading, who in the opening paragraphs had already convicted me in your minds as a criminal, I hope this post serves to show you that no one should judge anything without having all the facts.
And if one of you reading happens to be Prins, I hope you made it back to Chicago and I hope you reach out to me (E-Mail or Facebook is best) so that I could finally relay my gratitude… to you.