I Left My Heart in Folsom Prison

To the parolee caught trying sneak back into Folsom Prison: Next time just try the souvenir shop.

Original Story: MSNBC

Hand-built by inmates and Chinese railroad workers, this view of the granite wall that surrounds Folsom's old yard is from the main access road

The so-called “old Yard” was one of the facilities to which I was assigned as a temporary “consumer of Corrections services.” Years after my release, while driving with my then-girlfriend to Lake Tahoe for a wedding, I turned onto the prison road. I wanted to see that giant wall as an outsider, a perspectiv­e I didn’t have in my previous experience on the property. My decision to visit perplexed my girlfriend, who reminded me that it was a former life and a former me who’d been there before. We drove in silence until I saw the wall and my heart sank. Many bad and important memories resurfaced­. Folsom Prison was a Level IV facility then, housing only long and life-term inmates. (My own transfer there had been a mistake, so my stay lasted only a month. Still too long.)

In the cell next to mine was a 21-year-old who’d just begun his fourth year of an 18-years-to-life + life sentence; he’d been convicted of two heinous gang murders. But say what you will about scumbags who deserve the death penalty: my own daily interactions with this kid made me want stop, get my bearings, and find something to hold onto. The guy’s guilt mattered little compared to the toll the weight of such a sentence takes on a human soul. You couldn’t ever get this kid to laugh or tell a story, and yet he was there next to me, alive but non-resonant. It was him I was thinking of as I stared out the car window at that foreboding granite wall, knowing he was still behind it. The quiet in the car was replaced with the voice of every lifer I’d spoken with, but I couldn’t remember his. I grew overwhelme­d with appreciation for not winding up a repeat offender.

And then, because I am often a repeat-idiot, I got out of the car and went to the gift shop, where I bought a mug — a stupid, nine-dolla­r Folsom souvenir mug. You should’a seen the look on my girlfriend’s face, especially after I got chatty with the inmate trustee who sold it to me. It was his expression that finally woke me the hell up. He was offended that I’d returned to apparently rub my freedom in his face. I was ashamed. I got back in the car and went on about my life.

I mention all of this because none of us can begin to guess why Marvin Lane Ussery tried to sneak back into Folsom. If his action did involve drugs or cell phones, my guess is that he was under extreme duress due to some criminal debt that left him no choice. Trust me: only a real dumb-ass would go back because he misses the place – or thinks for a minute  he might.

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