A Life In Halves: 18 Free, 18 Caged

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Recently, I stared at a date from across the room. It was the 36th time…

For my entire adult life, I’ve missed out on everything outside the perimeter fences of MDOC’s maximum security units. Nearly everything I know is the experience of others. Marking my 36th birthday on my 18th prison-approved calendar really punctuated this in my awareness.

I have lived in the free world just as long as I’ve lived locked away from it…

I am a product of the 80s, and was a teenager in the 90s – my “best” years. My free ones. A lot has changed since then.

Skinny jeans and smartphones are the new cargo pants and pagers. iPods made tapes and CDs obsolete. Teenagers today think Eminem is “old”, and most have no clue who Tool or Korn are. Toilets flush and sinks turn on without any physical contact from the user. The old men running Desert Storm got into a wreck with the Iraq War, and now some of the most popular presidents in the world are women. In television, the Simpsons haven’t changed much, though what used to be Cinemax taboo – girls kissing other girls, guys other guys – is now part of the prime time lineup.

The things that don’t cause you to bat an eye are radical highlights to those of us inside.

Most prisoners learn about arrested development early on. The whole your-mind-stays-the-age-at-the-time-of-your-incarceration thing. I never subscribed to it. And went to great lengths to avoid practices that would inhibit my mental growth, prevent the achievement of goals… make me a teenaged Peter Pan forever. Joining a gang, gambling, drug addiction – all are monumental barriers to development. Culture changes on a continuum. To evolve with society, you know what the most important thing a prisoner can do is? Read… everything.

Reincarnation, astrology, metaphysics and the supernatural are not part of my belief system. Yet, now, I can relate when people speak of having lived other lives. My memories are a compilation of two separate existences. One a past full of youth and freedom. Happiness and family. The other, the present, is endless daily battles of uncertainty and danger.

In this world of outcasts, pain manifests in many forms. The emotional torment during a particularly humiliating strip search. Receiving a letter from the court informing you that your appeal was denied. Risking your life to escape, getting away, then… caught.


For me, the truly painful moments were when I looked around and realized I didn’t want to be around these people. And couldn’t get away to be with my family. D.A.R.E. and McGruff, the Scared Straight programs – they have it all wrong. They shouldn’t beat kids over the head with the threat of imprisonment. The threat of never seeing your family again would be far more effective.

I’ve managed to avoid becoming a product of my environment – “institutionalized” – though captivity has changed me. After a few years I learned how to shut off my emotions. Even went out of my way to study war strategy and stoicism, mindfulness, to exercise control of my emotions. Rid my life of everything that could weaken me. Including, for long periods, family and girlfriends.

My circumstances haven’t been completely gloom and doom, or without purpose, I’m happy to say. A smile is more genuine, strongly felt, because of the contrast of living through long period of dread. For some, prison can generate a wealth of innovation. Creative moments are more memorable. I’ve learned that the key to surviving incarceration with a purpose is to see problems as challenges, find gratification in the solutions. As a kid I didn’t appreciate moments that I now value highly, and the only key I had back then was for the front door.

Wanting to impress people is as natural as breathing. I used to be driven by the opinions of others – friends, family, teachers, and co-workers. Responses I imagined people would have when I showed them something I did or created. I repaired or modified bikes, motorcycles, cars, installed stereo systems, knowing the outcome would impress. I fabricated, organized, schemed… with a unique emotion propelling my efforts, occupying my thoughts.

Solo projects brought on the same emotion, though didn’t carry with it the swollen-with-energy feeling. A day in the trails on a dirtbike I spent all morning busting knuckles on, sand and mud, swarms of bugs, hitting me in the face – that was something worth doing. Or tearing through the neighborhood on a go-cart (sometimes with no brakes or pulling a string for the throttle), mouth full of sunflower seeds, tool bag rattling under my legs. Rolling, crunching over schools of fiddler crabs that crossed the roads winding next to the bayous… Anticipating those thrills put plenty of fuel in my tank of daily goals.

When I was 12 or 13 I had a small boat with a trolling motor. A solo project I enjoyed in the bayou for a couple of years. Being stranded, batteries dead (with only a paddle crafted from a small tree and a plank of wood to get me home), was a great reason to learn more about batteries, chargers, and their maintenance.

When I was 17-18, I had a V-8 powered jetboat for the river, a jeep and Bronco for the trails, and too many friends around for solo projects. Overcoming difficulties, preparing for a day of me-fun or to thrill a crowd of friends, was a huge part of my youth; my mind worked from my toolbox, outward.

18 years of prison life has changed me.

You know what my thoughts stem from these days? What drives me… what brings importance to my life? This pen I’m writing with.

I think about how my works will look as Word docs, published, and how they will or will not evoke spine chewing responses from the people reading them. I am a writer.

I think about customers during the tattoo process. The fun of choosing a design, deciding where it will be immortalized on their skin, their reaction when I finish and the reactions of their friends that they immediately show. I am a tattoo artist.

I think about the proud expression of a man that put the work in to learn the fundamentals of boxing. The sweat of repetitive punch drills, the soreness of joints from exaggerating the turning of heels, hips, and shoulders, the pain and breathlessness of intense cardio exercise. I am a boxing trainer.

I have lived in the free world just as long as I’ve lived locked away from it…Chris Roy

I think about my wife. Her smile and voice when I listen, her eyes rolling when she listens, and her laugh when I say something witty and she straightaway strikes it down as “cheesy”. I am a high-end cheese dealer.

My mom used to be impressed by all the cool things I did. At one point I began to think she didn’t care anymore. Then she told me, “Christopher. It’s not like I don’t care. It’s just that I expect that from you. I’m very proud of you.”

I have a wife to show off for now. A couple months back, book one of Sharp As A Razor was published. She was the first person I told. She yawned. I just shook my head and laughed.
Striving to impress others is still a source of energy for my personal successes. Though the emotional drive has evolved from a selfish need to impress into an altruistic want to help. Priorities have changed. The most important things are no longer the opinions of friends, organizing the next party, or the cheer of the in-crowd. Freedom is important. Doing whatever it takes to attain it. Family is important. Their view of me, my actions and plans. Community, helping others, being civil – even to people that can’t stand me – is important.
The three worst things in life used to be having no friends, no money, and no car. 18 years later, at the halfway point of my life as a prisoner, the three worst things are friends, drugs, and love. A convict with all three will need to be extremely durable and mentally tough. Friends can obligate you to take part in deadly situations. Or betray you for profit, as a means to survive. Drugs, whether dealing or consuming, compromise your safety and freedom.
I no longer have a large circle of friends; I have a handful of close ones, but mostly acquaintances and associates with varying degrees of trust. I haven’t participated in the drug business in a very long time. And if I need to consume something to comfort myself during a particularly hard time, I become a Nutty Bars fiend.
Love… Well now. Some convicts fall for the idea of a romantic life with someone. Wearing rose-colored shades in a fantasy land is an emotion that other convicts can use for malicious intent. The real thing though, tested in a forge, stronger for it – is something I now risk everything for. Why?
It’s the only thing that’s made me cry in 18 years.

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Comments 3

  1. Chris, This is the best writing I have seen. An honesty, a genuine warmth, an endurance of will are hallmarks of prize winning authors. You have all of those in “A Life of Halves.” And you know your Aunt Sherrie cares deeply for you! My best always, Aunt Sherrie

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