NOTE I: The title comes from a song I once wrote even though I am a musical illiterate. Jackrabbit is prison guard vernacular for a convict who is considered to be an escape risk.
NOTE II: This is more 1st draft material from my memoir in progress, The Secret History of My Foolish Heart. As with most any 1st draft material there are bound to be errors and missteps. If you spot anything particularly boneheaded, please let me know. Corrections and critiques are welcome.
Previous posts in this series:
For context, I once did time in Alabama as a guest of the State circa 1971-'78. It left me with a life-long passion for prison reform and a thirst for justice and fairness.
Escape is a thing that prisoners cannot help but think about. It's the most natural urge there is – to escape confinement. Escape lore is a major feature of convict culture. There are volumes on how it's done, all fixed in the memories of old convicts and transmitted orally, with nothing written down for the most part. Convicts have their own oral tradition like those of the ancients, perhaps less robust and reliable for its being promulgated, at least in part, by social deviants and borderline personalities, and polluted as it is by its association with mainstream modern culture, but a classic oral tradition nonetheless.
There are four broad approaches to escape:
The mad dash and pray for a miracle – common.
The sneaky snake – less common.
The revolt and run – rare.
The grand plan – the thinking convict's preferred approach - also rare, but not as.
For pretty much the entire duration of my confinement, I found my circumstances and surroundings to be intolerable. So I formed the habit of spending as much time as possible inside my own skull...thinking about things. Escape, of course, being one of them - you know, given incarceration's intolerable nature and all. After relentless cogitation, this is what I came up with for me in my particular case.
I was a twenty-year-old with a twenty-year sentence. My case was on appeal, so there was a chance of my conviction being overturned and my sentence getting tossed out. If I escaped in the mean time and was caught like most escapees are, and escape being a two-to-ten year felony, I'd remain locked up even if I won my appeal. I would still stand convicted of escape. The overturned conviction would not invalidate that. That sentence would remain, and so would I. And that was a nightmare I found altogether uninviting. If my appeal was denied, they could keep me for every day of every one of those twenty damnable years, plus the two-to-ten for escape.
Those facts alone might not have been enough to dissuade me though. It's hard to take the long view when your every day is basically hell, give or take a circle. The urge to jackrabbit, as they say, is intense. At times it can be unbearable. That's why every so often someone will just lose it and run to the nearest fence and start climbing...and presumably, praying for a miracle. They are often shot. When your hand touches that fence, you become a legal target. The odds of getting away with this approach are long, to say the least. Even if you clear the fence and the razor wire at the top, and people sometimes do, you still have a major challenge putting any real distance between you and the hell-hounds on your trail, both human and k-9, who, if they are not there when you hit the ground, will be right with you. But again, and unbelievably, people sometimes do. Some escapes work against all odds. But not most.
So observation and a perusal of the convict lore taught me that escape was a low-probability-of-success crime. The odds make bank robbery look like a comparatively safe bet. Escapes that are deemed successes are only so deemed for so long. The only thing harder than effecting an escape is living successfully while on escape, which entails avoiding all contact with the law, as well as vengeful girlfriends, treacherous family members, estranged partners and the like. All while providing the necessities of life even though all legal avenues for doing so are abundantly unavailable to you. The law is resourceful and relentless. Once it puts its mark of the beast on you, it can just wait until you surface. When you do, it will pounce. And your high-stress, high-risk, hyper-paranoid run of 'freedom' will be over. I've had convicts tell me they were relieved to be caught. Living on the run is just too much wear and tear for most. And then they slam your ass with two-to-ten, on top of what you've already got. Bit of a sucker's bet in my own personal view.
My POV was perhaps not unique but probably a minority opinion among the convict population. Many of my fellow convicts were either born into the criminal class or were otherwise resigned to it and accepted it as their fate, either with resignation or with mad commitment.
I had moments when it seemed like I might as well accept it myself, but I never really did, not fully. Just on the surface because that helped me get along. But underneath I held out hope for a better life. If you accept that you're going to be doing time off and on for more-or-less the rest of your life, then that casts a different light on the subject of escape. In my case, I simply wanted to be done with the system and could not bear the thought of being caught up in it for the rest of my life. So I resisted the urge to run – even when opportunities later presented themselves. By the time that happened I had thought it through and knew what I wanted out of life. And I knew that whatever way I found out from under the oppressive twenty-year sentence beneath which I struggled, it would have to be legal. Otherwise it would only be temporary at best.
I was two-and-a-half long-assed years in when I got word that my appeal had been denied. Winning my case on appeal was all I had lived for up to that point. It was all the hope I had and to it I had clung with every fiber of my being. The decision from the appeals court was a tough blow to take. It ripped from me my only hope. It was a nightmare within a nightmare. In my mind I was back staring at that twenty-year sentence as if it were brand new. I had hardly made a dent in it. I was inwardly and utterly despondent. If ever I was going to escape, that would have been the time. Somehow I pulled through, resisted the urge and found a way forward, day by day.
I transferred the shards of my hope to an early parole - a ridiculous long-shot, but it was all I had left. The law in Alabama was that in order to become eligible for parole, inmates had to serve one third of their sentence or ten years, which ever came first. And as every damned body and their goddamned brother will remind you, being eligible for a parole doesn't mean you get one. One third of twenty years is six years and eight months. Six-eight was my nut. If I couldn't get them to budge on an early hearing, that's how much time I would have to do before I'd even have a chance.
I had a good case for an early parole, I believed. I had avoided major trouble, for the most part. As far as the record showed any way. No escapes and no escape attempts. In many ways I had been lucky. Some of my hairier moments weren't a matter of record. I'd only been caught fighting once. Five days in the doghouse and done, but not enough to blemish an otherwise spotless jacket. In addition to the not negatives there were also some notable positives, or so it could be argued...as I planned to. I was a co-founder of both the first prison college program and the first therapeutic drug treatment program in the Alabama prison system. As time went by I got closer to an Associates Degree and to certification as a para-professional drug treatment counselor. I was building my case, and I had a lot of supporters in the free world who went to bat for me. The problem was that the Parole Board were a bunch of stubborn old jackasses who almost never granted early parole hearings, much less early paroles. And not just jackasses but hard-asses. As hard as they come. And I had to get before them to plead my case, and I couldn't just call them up and say, hey how 'bout it?
But I have wandered from my path. My point was that I never escaped because I wanted to be done with it. I saw that had I escaped, they'd have their claws in me for the rest of my life. However long it took, I wanted to walk away from all of that crime and punishment unencumbered. I wanted to sever that abusive relationship with the State. I wanted to be free.
Like a bird on a wireFor six years, four months and eleven days, this was my song:
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free