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The Public i is partnering with the Education Justice Project (EJP) to share writing completed by incarcerated students at the Danville Correctional Center. The EJP is a comprehensive college-in-prison program based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Through its educational programming EJP enriches the lives of its students, their families, and the communities to which they return.

Chaos stills, only the eerie sound of silence remains. The clapping of cheap sneakers colliding with the linoleum floor announces the start of a race, a race to the link to a life left behind. The urge to sprint is overpowering. Consideration for others is lost. Jostling bodies clamor together, vying to be first. Silver boxes shine, beacons in the darkness, illuminating hope and giving illusions of relevancy. Hieroglyphic symbols have shaken the hands of more people than any president. Grasping souls look to hold onto a world otherwise lost. The magical device is an escape.

Before the magical glyphs can be activated, loud voices assert their dominance, distractions from the path home. Jabbing at the glyphs, fingers are boxer’s fists. The metal base rattles, as I pound the grid like a speed bag. The texture of each button is memorized, braille for the lost.

Cool surface pressed to ear, sealing off the sounds of insecurity. The scent of Doritos and hot breath stain the receiver, another reminder of forced acquaintances. A robotic voice doles out familiar instructions, waiting, time crawls. Hope and anticipation of rejection battle in my heart: the hope of a familiar voice on the other end, the anticipation of disappointment. Despair begins to overtake hope. What happens next sets the tone for the day.

The robotic voice makes its announcement that there is no connection. The void remains. I am alone. Figures that danced in my heart are now characters in an old forgotten film, distant shapes on the horizon, that you know are there, but can no longer see clearly.

Walking away, the world is huge, yet infinitely small. Giants surround me. Smiling faces, laughter, and a mosaic of loud voices demanding attention only to complain about the attention received. The walls close in with every step. The distance between me and my motivation for life grows exponential. Slowly, hope trickles in, a hope that tomorrow will allow me to reestablish the connections that shape my identity. Hope builds, but never overtakes the desperation for a voice to guide me on my darkened path. I push through, moving mounds of regret as I go, a bulldozer changing the landscape it touches. I look to change the landscape of my life, to clear a path of communication.

The robotic voice returns, warns me of some rule. I focus on the hope that the warning will be followed by a human voice, the voice of someone who cares. A strange feeling in my gut gnaws its way to my mind: What if I hear bad news? What if something happened?

The inflection of the voice, more often than not, tells me if everything is okay. General pleasantries begin the expedition. Words flow seamlessly, discussion of relevant topics: the kids, grandkids, or maybe my siblings and their children. We share our hopes as we plan for the future. We plan for something better. We know in our hearts it may be a dream. But we plan, as if the future were guaranteed. Time that crawled at a snail’s pace speeds now. All too soon the familiar electronic voice issues a final warning, informing me I have one minute to tell the person I am connected to how much I love them, appreciate them, how important they are to me, and how they inspire me to more than I could hope to be on my own. There is a tickling of desperation at the back of my throat. Hidden tears coat my words as I am forced to bid farewell. We say our goodbyes over and over, until the thread that connects us is cut by the lifeless machine. I slowly walk away, a body anxiously brushes past, and for him the process begins anew.

The inflection of the voice is all wrong. “Oh Tommy,” the words are drowned in tears. Pain rends the rest of the world away from me; there is only the voice of the conduit to my heart. My chest sinks into the depths, falling for eternity. I wait for the next words. My vision blurs, concealing the world around me. I forget to breathe. The breath trapped in my chest screams for release. My mind pays no attention. The news hits harder than any sentence a judge could give. Waterfalls spill from my eyes, fire sears my cheeks. My breath explodes from my chest. The sound escaping my body is that of a gazelle in a lion’s jaws. The shattered remains of my world are turning to dust and dissipate into the ether. I am nothing. I am lost.

Silence ensues. Yet love, empathy, and sadness ebb and flow between us. We are more alive than ever, and dead at the same time. I am no longer the victim of my own making, but a victim of time. The loss is unbearable. We find our voices, repeating that we love one another. The monotone voice, an assassin’s dagger, pauses our misery.

My focus shifts to gathering myself together. I prepare to don a mask to conceal my weakness. I have one minute to change my colors, I am a chameleon disguising my emotions. The heartless machine cleaves our time together, announcing the birth of a new age. Everything is a little dimmer.

I turn to walk away. My steps do not come naturally. They are mired in the bogs of loss. Emotions unbalance my entire world. Each step is that of a drunken man.

I make my way to the only oasis left to me. I climb into the cold embrace of my bunk, burying my face in the pillow that yields just enough of itself to blot out the world. I mimic sleep.

Thomas Stromblad is an Educational Justice Project student at the Danville Correctional Center.

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