A few weeks ago, at 2 a.m., Ryan climbed out of his bunk and picked his way through the dark while his 109 dorm-mates slept. He got dressed and brushed his teeth, then sat back down and waited for his life to begin.
Ryan, “Keith,” in Weekends with Daisy, is the prison inmate I trained two service dogs with. He went into prison in 1992 as a 16-year-old. Now, 24 years and three months later, he was about to be released to a halfway house.
He passed the next two hours thinking about the future; he re-read a few chapters of the book he’d just finished (“The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog”). He looked over at the sleeping bodies of the few guys he befriended, and he prayed for them.
At 4 a.m., a correctional officer came into the dorm. Ryan grabbed the clear plastic garbage bag that held a change of underwear, his toothbrush, shower shoes, and seven books (everything he owned), and walked out of the dorm. In a couple of hours, the first few guys would stir, and then the rest would follow until the sounds of too many bored and restless men crammed into too small a space would rise to a head-cracking din. Just like it did every morning. But for the first time in what seemed like forever, Ryan wouldn't be there, jamming headphones into his ears to muffle the noise.
In the holding cage where he waited for the transport van, things already felt different. Instead of speculating with the other guys about whether they’d have yard that day, or what their chances were of getting in a phone call before lights out, Ryan talked about his next stop. The halfway house was 50 miles away in a city he’d never seen and where he knew no one, and while it wasn’t exactly freedom, it was at its threshold.
Finally, it was time. Ryan was handcuffed, arms in front, and herded into the transport van with five other guys. There weren’t enough seats, so one of the men sat on the floor (yeah, it’s against Department of Corrections regulations, but so are a lot of things that happen in prison). One by one, the inmates were dropped off at halfway houses around the state. Ryan’s was the last stop.
The van pulled up across the street from a rambling, rundown white clapboard building in a neighborhood scarred by homelessness and addiction. The correctional officer opened the van door and Ryan stepped out into a dirt parking lot. He started toward the front entrance when the correctional officer stopped him. “Hold on,” the officer said, and used a key to remove the handcuffs. Ryan stood uncertainly, testing his bare wrists. Nearly a quarter century behind razor wire—of head counts and lockdowns, prison food and boredom--and now there he was, a 41-year-old man standing on a city sidewalk, just like anyone else.
He thought he might float away.