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Connections | Magazine

After I served my prison sentence, I tried to stay in touch with my former cellmates

I think about them every day, but they’ve stopped calling me. Maybe it’s for the best.

Photo illustration of a woman's hand holding an old-fashioned phone receiver with a cord.
Photo illustration of a woman's hand holding an old-fashioned phone receiver with a cord.Images from Adobe Stock/Globe staff photo illustration

For the first year I was home from prison, I rerouted any money that came my way directly into an account for prepaid calls with Securus, the correctional phone service behemoth. Because prison rules only allow outgoing calls, I would cheerfully accept and underwrite calls from my friends and former cellmates still inside, and listen to what was happening in the place where I’d lived for more than six years — gossip from the old neighborhood. Police had arrested one of the guards for sexual assault. Then another. Then a third. Recidivists swung in and out. Tuesday evenings were locked down for staff training, which both ends of the call knew was likely not happening.

“What’s up with you?” each caller inevitably asked. I had little to relay and, without a job or social networks — all of that had evaporated 10 years before — I was almost in the same position as they were. So I would share small details: “I got a $12 bob” — all I could afford and a significant fall from my pre-prison life, which included $500 highlights in Manhattan. “No, I didn’t get a job yet.” “Of course I’m not dating anyone — did you hear what I just said about the cut-rate bob?”

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In post-prison reentry to society, your future just shows up. It doesn’t appear when you need it to and it doesn’t match your plans because even though you’d been warned, you had no idea how hard it was going to be. With a criminal record, stop signs and land mines litter your life; you’ll be blocked or blown up almost every time you attempt something new. But you’ll continue on, as I did. Eventually, I got busier, found a job, started freelancing, and my appeals demanded more of my attention. I’ve never felt fully resettled, though. Each detour and disappointment reminds me of where I once was.

As time went on, my phone account deposits got smaller and less frequent. Even though I had more money, I couldn’t justify the cost of the calls in light of competing, immediate expenses — like getting new shoes to replace the ones whose soles had cracked from age and neglect as my feet walked the line far away.

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Drifting from the prepaid calls didn’t result from forgetting about the women of York Correctional Institution. Quite the contrary: Their stories and needs fuel my work. I fought to cap the price of prison calls so that their families and I would pay less to connect with them. I think about each one every day, but I doubt they know that because I haven’t talked to many of them in years.

Until the pandemic, I didn’t realize that the cost of the calls was just an excuse. Now, each inmate in Connecticut receives two free calls per week because wardens canceled in-person visits to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. Inmates could call me even with my zero Securus balance, but they haven’t. Maybe my number isn’t on their lists of approved contacts anymore.

They might feel betrayed, which would be reasonable. They may have forgotten about me, which I would deserve. But they know, and I know, the real reason why we don’t talk anymore. My life is kinetic; theirs, still. Prison is the last place many of them will ever live. As frustrated as I may feel about my progress, I’m moving and I can’t bring them with me, at least not in a meaningful way. The dynamic created by my freedom and their confinement is unworkable over the phone. I know that maybe just by listening to them I’d be helping; presence means a lot.

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But as long as I can’t free them or save them, each call feels like I’m brunching with champagne across the table from someone connected to an IV glucose drip. The powerlessness to share the freedom I have gnaws at me. Perhaps cutting the cord was not only inevitable, but in all of our best interests.

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Chandra Bozelko is a syndicated columnist and fellowship facilitator for The OpEd Project. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.