Dispatches | June 11, 2014

litOnLockdown (2)

By Alison Balaskovits

Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at literatureonlockdown@gmail.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.

Today’s Writer is Donald Joseph Urbanski

The Long Wave Goodbye

Because I was born curious of most everything – except for social norms, my life has been an arduous journey.

During my first two years of elementary school, I was often found investigating the nooks & crannies of St. Anne’s School and its adjacent church. Instead of sitting in the classroom with the other children, I often snuck over to the church and watched the sunlight as it streamed through the stained glass windows, turning the sanctuary into the world’s largest kaleidoscope. Almost hypnotically, I was lulled to sleep by the sunbeams of colored light and the warmth of the church pew and sticky scent of incense and candle wax, until the laughter of morning recess would beckon me from my hiding spot.

At first, the teachers considered my behavior quirky, saying that I was a shy and precocious child who preferred his own company. However, with the onset of second grade, school authorities began calling my extracurricular activities truancy and malingering.

As expected, this was cause for alarm. When asked about my repeated tardiness, I was unable to give a sufficient answer. To avoid further questioning by school officials I stopped going to the second grade altogether. I would deliberately miss the school bus or walk out of the school under the pretense of using the bathroom, leaving the hall-pass on the floor by the back door. I would then begin exploring the neighborhood parks and city streets until 3:30pm when the school day was over. This of course, invited further scrutiny by school officials and truancy officers.

As a result of my youthful wanderlust I was given a battery of tests by school authorities and social services. Their diagnosis at that time was hyperactivity with the addition of avoidant personality disorder. It was also noted that I was an extremely inquisitive child who cognitively outpaced his peers causing isolation due to my social apathy. Needless to say, this was considered a detriment to my developing social skills. It was decided that short-term residential treatment would be necessary if I was ever to function properly in public school or society. It was then at age eight, that my adolescent apprenticeship in childhood psychotherapy began in earnest at Valley Youth Center, Bar-None Boys Ranch, Bethany Children’s Home, St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, and Glenn Lake County Home School.

While my years increased, I became a chronic run-away and teenage street survivor. And because of my pubescent homelessness and petty larcenies, the juvenile justice system ordered my detention along with additional psychological testing. Those tests concluded that I had developed antisocial tendencies with an attraction to lawlessness. Furthermore, if those issues went untreated, my unbridled curiosity would eventually lead to a life of incarceration. So began my life’s vocation at age 14 in the Minnesota State Training School, Red Wing.

In reality, the order for behavior modification treatment by the juvenile court system was never fully realized. By then my navigational skills of treatment centers and juvenile delinquent facilities was second to none. I was capable of hiding in public while being on a first name basis with the institutions’ general population and staff alike. In short, I was impervious to any treatment techniques or methods of rehabilitation – a fact I foolishly prided myself on.

True to form, my two year stay in Red Wing was more of a training ground for drug abuse and criminal instruction than it was for character development. Upon my arrival I was introduced to a makeshift syringe fashioned out of an old eyedropper and an overly used hypodermic. It was full of the strong narcotic Dilaudid. After my first taste of that burnt orange elixir, I was immediately hooked! No longer would the pangs of fear and loneliness be felt or tolerated – at least while the medications flowed. As you might imagine, the comforts of home, family and freedom were forfeited in my never-ending pursuit of narcotics. A hard truth I’ve come to regret many times over, especially since I’ve never escaped the fear of rejection or the pain of loneliness – I merely aggravated them.

Now that my adolescence is 40 years behind me, I’ve acquired over 39 arrests in eleven different states with at least five prison sentences to my credit. For those reasons, I’ve been labeled with the correctional term of “career criminal”. The clinical terminology is just as unattractive: narcissism with the proclivity for sociopathic behavior.

I’ve been serving a 35-year life sentence on the installment plan: I’m what you’d call a frequent flyer of the criminal justice system, or just plain “loser” in layman’s terms. Amazingly, I’ve managed to stay alive long enough to carry these names and a host of less endearing ones as well, like dope fiend, deadbeat dad, criminal lowlife, and the coup de grace, societal parasite.

Today, I’m sitting here with roughly 4,380 days of my fifth prison bit on top of me. Regrettably, what I failed to realize during my last four prison stints is that no refunds are given for a squandered life – not the timeliest revelation when you’ve recently pushed past the half century mark.

It was only after decades of institutional living that I came to understand the futility of hanging on to my dreams, or to the hope of ever going home again. Talk about waiting in vain, those sentiments nearly crushed my spirit. Especially when I realized that my two daughters, who had always shared their wild laughter with me as children, had grown into unfamiliar women since my imprisonment. Now they stand behind shy smiles of reservation wondering if I’ll ever come home.

It was then that I knew how defenseless I was against the slow moving hand of time and its steady erosion of my life. Unfortunately, this “correctional truth” has left me in a barren purgatory where I’m forced to watch the world breathe while I hold my breath and cling to faded memories while wrestling with the residue of what might have been and what never will be.

There are certain amenities within the prison package that never get mentioned in the frequent flyers brochure. I only found them years later in the small print where absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder; where you’re reminded daily of the long wave goodbye when all you find is an echo in your mail box. Sadly, this echo is soon followed by unanswered phone calls to family and friends, and it ends tragically when visiting with loved ones becomes nonexistent. It’s a slow burn to be homesick for a place that no longer exists. And it’s sheer frustration to exist in the in-between with nothing left to lose on the outside and still more to give from the inside.

That’s the epitome of my incarceration – aching to know that it matters to somebody else like it matters to me. But the reality of my life is having no one to share with and having no defense against the certainty of loss and isolation. Now after three and a half decades, my prison has become a cage of degradation, capturing my broken spirit and turning my heart into a literal dust-bin of despair. Meanwhile, the bane of my imprisonment remains a persistent yearning for the outside world that has rightfully moved on.

Donald Joseph Urbanski is a freedom fighter who enjoys writing short essays that promote the sanctity of life. He believes writing should educate, liberate, or at the very least, give a brief reprieve from the struggles of daily life. In the near future, he hopes to professionally share the gift of recovery with those still suffering from the perils of addiction. Philippians 4:13 “We can do everything through Him who gives us strength.”