Roses and Razor Wire

Once a month, I visit a friend who lives about an hour away. Bob is always eager to see visitors. He is, in a manner of speaking, homebound, living in a 10-by-13 foot room with only a bed, a toilet, and a shelf that serves as a desk.

On my last visit, roses bloomed around the entrance, and three or four men dressed in white were mowing the grass. But Bob never gets to see the roses. In fact, he only leaves his room for about an hour a day, either to shower or take a walk around an asphalt basketball court. Bob lives in what you might call a gated community. A high fence topped with razor wire surrounds the compound.

The name of Bob’s gated community? Texas Death Row.

On my side of the visiting area, a row of more than 30 telephone booths fills with visitors, mostly family members. On Bob’s side is a row of wire cages where the prisoners arrive with their hands manacled behind them. After the guard slams the cage door shut, Bob crouches down so the guard can unlock the handcuffs through a slot in the wire mesh. Then we both pick up our telephone receivers in our cubicles so we can talk.

Though I’d like to bring Bob cookies, rules require that I enter empty-handed except for my driver’s license and a roll of quarters for the vending machine. Bob enjoys the packaged salads as he rarely gets any fresh produce. He also likes kiwi-strawberry Gatorade. Rules require that I put the quarters in the machine and that the officer on duty removes and delivers the selection to Bob.

In his cell, Bob lives behind a solid steel door. His only window is a narrow horizontal slit near the ceiling. He can see out it only by standing on his rolled up mattress. His only other contact with the outside world comes from a small radio. Since Bob arrived three years ago, the only human touch he’s felt has been a guard’s hand.

I would never tell Bob this, but I believe I’d go crazy living in that kind of confinement. I try to imagine never seeing the sky or trees or touching my foot to the ground . . . or never having anyone to talk to. I almost think I’d rather die.

But prisons come in many guises. My mother was confined to a wheelchair and then to her bed for six years. Not all prisons are physical, though. The mind can be shut up by fear, mental illness, or ignorance. And we may have a little cell inside us where we lock up certain emotions.

There are two kinds of prisons: those we choose and those we don’t. Bob didn’t choose to live behind razor wire and never see roses. My mother didn’t choose to have Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. We all live with some circumstance that limits our freedom. But some prison gates only the prisoner has the power to open. The wisdom to know the difference is the key.

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