After 21 years in the Rhode Island prison system -- the last 17 in the same facility, Keith was about to transfer out of state to finish his final stretch of time. He was nervous, but prepared. He got rid of his few possessions and focused on "cleaning the attic," as he put it -- clearing his head so he'd be in good mental shape for the transition.
Somebody gave him the date of the transfer. He passed the information on to me, and I tried to find out the name of the prison where he was being taken.
That was a big mistake. My inquiry tipped off authorities that Keith knew when he would be moved.
Prisoner transports are like state secrets; the only ones who can know when they'll take place are the drivers and a few people on either end. The fear is that if an inmate knows when he’ll be on the road, he’ll plan an escape. He might have friends on the outside fake an accident and ambush the vehicle.
The very notion that Keith would try to escape at this point in his life is inconceivable – to him, to me, to everyone who knows him – including whoever it was who let him know when the marshals would be coming for him.
By all accounts, Keith has been a model inmate. He's grown from an angry teenager who deserved to be in prison into a man who wants to build a future for himself. While serving time, he earned his bachelor's degree, trained service dogs, and spoke to kids about the consequences of making bad choices.
Now, the end is finally in sight. He just had to move to another prison to get there.
I don't know the details, but my theory is that the reason the prison staff tipped him off is because they're decent people. A few of them have known Keith since he was a teenager and were pretty confident that once he left, they wouldn't be seeing him again -- certainly not back in prison. Maybe they just wanted to give him a proper goodbye.
And probably, they wanted to ease his anxiety, lessen his fear of the unknown. They knew he was nervous about going to a new prison, being stripped of his "rank" as a long-timer and starting back at the bottom. They also knew that once he left Rhode Island, the classification process would take weeks or months and it would be awhile before he'd be able to speak with his family again. If he knew when he'd be leaving, at least he could get in that one last phone call.
Unfortunately, the prison system has no tolerance for this kind of thinking -- at least not when it comes to transfers. When Keith gave me the date, I naively called his lawyer who in turn, called the out-of-state prison system to ask where his client would be taken. That's when all hell broke loose.
Keith made it as far as the state line when the transfer was called off. He was returned to prison and thrown in segregation while authorities investigated the source of the leak. I guess they figured out who it was because after seven days in solitary confinement, Keith was finally shipped out of state. This time I didn't find out about it until after the fact.
Since then, I've been veering from guilt to outrage and back to guilt again. And I've been trying very hard to understand the jailer mindset. I guess when you deal with convicts for a living, you have to assume everyone is up to no good. The problem is, that outlook dehumanizes everyone in the prison system – correctional officers, prison administration and inmates. My gut churns when I try to imagine what was going through Keith’s head when he was yanked back to prison and thrown into solitary simply because he knew his transfer date. But worse than that is knowing that there are prison staff who got in trouble for being kind to him -- who were, in fact, punished for treating an inmate like a fellow human being.