A Story by Thomas Elson


     Seán Tyler knew what had happened. He had been inside waiting for Joe Kilmer, surrounded by the odors from men allowed to shower twice a week. Those smells merged with adrenaline and suppressed testosterone that found nowhere to vent until the guards opened the metal doors.

     The men rushed past the open door, down metal steps toward the Mess Hall – food plentiful, repetitious, bland; the drinking water speckled with floating rust; and whatever you do, don’t eat the bread. They treaded over cement walkways threaded between spans of asphalt - a world of grays, blacks, browns lacquered with splotches of industrial white. In an atmosphere of perpetual dusk, they were surrounded by nineteenth century limestone walls seven feet thick and twenty feet high.

     As if reflected in a mirror, Seán glimpsed a man in a bloodied white T-shirt lean against the Mess Hall door. Head down, he clutched a stained, brown paper bag. His eyes watered. “Why? Why do they keep talking? The voices.” Paper bag in hand, right shoulder pressed against the wall, he paced. He reached the next door and turned, pressed his left shoulder to the wall, switched the bag to his right hand and continued to the next door, then turned, switched hands, repeated. Within minutes, three uniformed men hauled him away. When the sun caught the man’s face, Seán thought he saw himself. For years, he was haunted by that memory, and for years kept seeing the bruises from the guards.

     “He’s on an anti-psychotic, but this damn place won’t approve it,” someone said. Referring to the prescription formulary for approved medication. “Be careful of him, he hears voices and has imaginary friends. He’ll be buried in the hole.”

     The hole - an octagonal two-story limestone structure segregated from the other buildings. Inside,   the tiled floors glistened under fluorescent lights. Monitors that transmitted the movements of men adjudged to be an immediate threat to themselves surrounded a circular stainless steel desk positioned in the center of the first floor.

     Repeated screams, “Why?


     “Help me.”

     “Look at this blood. It’s been here for days,” echoed from men inside cells with drainage holes near their doors. Clanging, reverberations, perseverations – never ending, deafening. And always, the smells prevailed – sweat, adrenaline, testosterone, feces and urine – sanitation not a top priority. Lights never dimmed. No visitors allowed. Men on the second floor allowed out only to eat and one hour in the yard. Men on the first floor – never saw the sun. Only five armed guards per shift. No psychiatric services available.


     A jet stream swept into the yard, ricocheted from limestone wall to limestone wall; then repeated itself and clawed his face. It was two degrees hotter than hell, and Seán Tyler knew he was in the middle of it.

     Seán, lean and agile with a view of the future rare in this setting, saw shapes break through the whirling dust - young men strutting with heads raised, eyes alert – temporarily above the rules; rail-thin, mustached men in tight shirts and tighter jeans, prancing behind rough-cut, burly men with scowls, heads lowered like bulls; older men, hope absent; and the oldest men, bent and limp like effigies expecting another body blow – nothing to see, nothing to say.

     Seán heard his wife’s voice in that jet stream. He could describe her words verbatim if he felt safe. Which he didn’t. He could describe her face, the lilt of her voice, her clothes, her touch. He could describe how he, as a young man, had risen from seasonal carpenter to master carpenter with dreams of building entire houses, large communities. He could describe how his wife had followed him in that dream. But he didn’t. He could describe what she advised him to do, if he trusted anyone enough. Which he didn’t. He knew, but chose to forget, even to deny, his wife’s infidelities.

     He had spoken with her often since her death twenty-six years ago. On the day of her funeral, she said, in a rushed, almost staccato voice, “Seán, after our Sunday dinner. Shot in the head in his car. You weren’t even in town when he killed me.” Her words conveyed a feeling in him he had long felt but could not name. He took comfort in what she said, “Seán, you don’t belong in there. Work to get out. Help find him.” Unsure whether it was a dream or a vision, he settled on vision and stuck with it.

     Then, as quickly as it happened, she disappeared, and Seán was on the edge of his bed stunned as if he had been administered some drug without his permission. “Hell, for years, everything’s been without my permission,” he said to no one.

     Seán never spoke of his wife’s visits, not even Joe Kilmer, his cellmate in the Ninnescah County jail when they were young men. Together, they had secreted rare reading materials through bars and around thick walls, learned how to convert the water faucet into a drinking fountain, and memorized the rhythms of incarceration.  Shackled one the other, and transported to Lecompton State Prison, then assigned to the same cell.

     In Seán’s mind, it was just last year he was a newly married man with a clear view of his future. Then his wife’s death and he was the defendant in her murder trial with no money and a court-appointed lawyer. As the husband, he was the first suspect, and when he refused to take a lie detector test, became the only suspect. After the jury verdict and life sentence, his family, money, visits, and friends disappeared. No money meant that he researched and wrote his own appeals. He relied on Kilmer, to help him decipher tortuous legal opinions.

     Each evening, after his laundry job and dinner, Seán walked up three flights of stairs to the library, a compact room with no windows, a few tables and chairs, metal bookcases containing a lean selection of relevant books, scattered Fed. 2nd volumes, the 1963-1971 volumes of U.S. Supreme Court case law, and an incomplete set of the U.S. Code.



     After they left the Mess Hall, Seán walked with Kilmer toward the exercise yard over tightly packed dirt, choked patches of weeds, and hurried past men clustered near the metal bleachers. Movement, motion, almost a blur of men - large and wide, tall and thin, short and broad, some with teardrops under their left eyes, a few with missing fingers, others limping and shaking. Seán heard bursts of harsh laughter with hand slapping interspersed between practiced glances of derision.

     “Hey, you. Killer,” said a skinhead with a 5:1 tattoo to tooth ratio, his voice a third rate imitation of Tony Soprano.

     No response.

     “You, Killer, I asked you your name.” Seán slowed down.

     The voice again, “You. Speak up.”

     Silence, then Seán turned and said, “Seán Tyler.”

     “Well, Seán Tyler, when you gonna align yourself? Join up?”  “Align,” pronounced like “a lion.” Join, pronounced “jo-ween”. The man laughed.


     “You heard him. When you gonna join? You needa be with us. You high status,” said a voice with a regional rasp that spoke of few hopeful days. Then as if challenged, the man stepped forward.

     Seán knew the common law of the institution, the rules - Decisions. Make ‘em quick. Know where you are. Know how to act. Know the routine. Don’t screw up, don’t look up, don’t bend over. Incur no debts.  Watch your back, watch your ass, don’t watch other people – learn to live like that on a daily basis, and you may survive.

     He heard his wife’s voice, looked directly at the man, took one step forward, and irrespective of the rules, without a smile or rise in pitch, said, “Buddy, I don’t need to,” stopped, inhaled an exasperated breath, then exhaled that exasperation, “jo-ween anything. Leave me the hell alone.” He walked off without another word. At that moment, Seán was singled out as a special project.

     “Watch out. They’re not asking you to pledge a fraternity,” he heard Kilmer say.

     Seán slowed his pace, turned his head, looked straight at Kilmer, “Can you imagine me standing around – using ‘fuck’ as an interjection or adverb, hell, maybe even an adjective?” He took a breath, “Not me.”

     A few minutes later, Seán’s eyes jerked to the right, quickly shot away. He words came out deliberately, “Look at those old men on that rusted bench near the barbells. Scares the hell out of me.”


     “Faces tight as drawstrings. Resentful eyes. Roll-your-own cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.” He flashed to a large round table in the day room with the omnipresent cigarette-rolling machine, the yellow and blue cans of Tops tobacco – rumored to come from floor sweepings, the Zig-Zag wrappers in shirt pockets. Seán’s face flushed. “I don’t want to end up like them.”

     “How’s that?” Kilmer asked.

     “Full of regret. More than that. Full of revenge.”

     “Well, hell, who isn’t? Sounds biblical.”

     “Is biblical. I’ll end up insane or interred – or both,” said Seán.

     “You’re too smart to end up like that,” said Kilmer.

     “I hope you’re right,” said Seán, “but I ended up like this.”


     On yet another day, in yet another line of men waiting to be told what to do, told where to go, to be barked at about something – lined up to go somewhere or lined up to come back from somewhere else; it didn’t matter. It was a line, and Seán was in it.

     It happened quickly. One second he was in a line; the next, surrounded, and sprawled across the ground. He had felt pressure against his ribs, but no pain.

     He saw Kilmer stand over him. “Not him,” Seán attempted to point toward Kilmer, saw blood on the ground, then on himself, felt pain for the first time.

     ”What happened? Can ya get up?” A guard bent over, “Ya know who did it?”

     Seán felt his side, attempted to speak. His throat gurgled. He coughed, tasted copper, watched a bubble of blood escape from his mouth. An uncontrollable urge to stand came over him, he failed, then, in slow motion, crawled toward the bleachers, gently pulled himself up, and perched on the front row.

     “Did you see who did it?”

     Seán lied himself ignorant. Even in his battered state, he knew the guards didn’t believe him. He didn’t care, and, what he learned was, they didn’t either.


     The next morning, drugged and painless, he awoke in the county hospital with a dark red swelling the size of a golf ball under his rib cage. He received ephemeral kindness from an English-as-a-sometimes-language nurse. A nameless doctor, who never looked directly at Seán, said, “They stabbed you just below the left side of your rib cage. Just missed having your bowels sliced open.” Walked away without another word.

     He was sent to the three-bed infirmary inside the walls two days later. The next morning, he was escorted back to his cell with a pass to the nurse’s office for a dressing change.  

     That evening, Seán told a guard his toothbrush was missing. Three days, three reminders, and one cell search later, he received a new toothbrush and placed it in full view.

     After the lights dimmed, Seán pulled his old toothbrush from a hollowed-out section of a book, scraped the bottom of it against the wall until it had a sharp point, placed it back inside the book. He thought for a moment, then decided. Not now. Now I need to focus. Concentrate on my appeal. No diversions. No revenge.


     The next evening after supper, Seán stuffed his bag with three number two pencils (the maximum allowed), handwritten pages of case law (photocopying not available), and trudged up the iron fire escape to the library. His right hand held protectively below his ribs, Seán opened the door; saw movement in the shadows. His wife. He leaned close, heard her say, “Focus. Don’t get angry.” Then she was gone.

     He adjusted his aviator frame bifocals (standard issue), pulled out a chair, sat next to Kilmer, and listened, “Seán, you gotta do something. You need to avenge this, or they’re gonna kill you.”

     “I can’t.”

     “But, you’ve been attacked. You have to.”

     “I know,” said Seán, but I’m not gonna screw up my court appeals. That’s all I got left.”

     Seán watched as Kilmer set his book on the table, “Is this your last appeal?”

     “Nope, I’ve still got the federal courts. Who knows?” Seán watched as Kilmer’s eyes focused on him, “But I can’t risk it. I’ve bet everything on the courts. So I can’t retaliate against anyone.”



     Years passed. Large swaths of Seán’s life were lost or rendered incomplete, his memories beaten and smudged by time. Names forgotten, men discharged or died, cells reassigned, cellblocks changed, guards left. Seán, now sixty-seven years old, hair thin and gray, body periodically painful, always sore somewhere, walked with a stoop to lessen his pain. He listened to his wife more often.


     During a mail call, a guard shouted, “Tyyyyy-lerrrrr.” Elongated words reverted quickly to the clipped form, “Tyler, somebody love ya.” As if dumping trash, the guard discarded a nine-by-twelve manila envelope on the pile of opened mail strewn across the floor. Seán hustled down the iron steps. The right corner of his mouth tilted upward.  He was smiling again.

     Back inside his forty-eight sq. ft. room, Seán sat rocking back and forth. Head lowered, he read amid shadows cast by a single light embedded nine feet above the floor. It all culminated in this - after years of research into out-of-date books and the struggle to find relevant case law, rarely able to secure a current Supreme Court opinion, and if he could, spending hours hand copying it – he received a manila envelope thrown on a pile.

     His mouth moved as he read his final appeal. The Federal Court’s obligatory recitation of the history of his case: His jury trial – lost. Direct state appeal – denied. Motion for a Federal jury trial – denied. Appellate Court affirmed the denial. Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal district court – lost. Appeals court affirmed the denial.

     The court referenced a fifty-nine page order issued by a court years ago – the higher court agreed with the federal district court. Seán had failed to show that he had been denied any important federal rights. The court outlined Seán’s issues – all denied. DENIED AND DISMISSED. Christ, they actually capitalized the words.

     Jury trials lost. State court appeals lost. Verdicts affirmed. Federal appeals lost; legal issues rejected, dismissed. His final appeal - denied.

     Nothing outside his cell and certainly nothing outside the walls existed for Seán. Whether it was sunny or dark, summer or winter, held no personal relevance. He lifted his battered five foot eight inch frame and walked to the bars, looked each way, neither saw nor heard anyone.

     He examined the walkway again, saw no one. No trustees. No guards. He placed his right hand over the cover of a book – the dug-out interior of which held the sharpened toothbrush, and secreted it in the lining of his jacket.

     What’s the point? Dismissed, ignored, the remainder of his life sealed inside limestone walls and vertical bars. Every day a repetition of yesterday. Hour after minute. Why? He knew he was a lifer. No parole. No release. They’ll bury me in the prison cemetery in a few years. A grim smile formed when he added his number, Grave stone number 3817-9.

     He heard his wife speak to him slowly and patiently. He trusted her. When she stopped, he saw her smile, then glanced around his crude enclosure. Why not?  What do I have to lose?  Seán put on his jacket, tapped the lining and smiled.

     Once outside the metal door, he walked past the Mess Hall over pathways that snaked between three and four story buildings. Spotlights swept the yard and bisected the stadium lights above the towers. It was almost windless with only small, scattered patches of snow.

     Seán’s face now pale, almost bleached-out, his shoulders once broad now rounded, hand held over his scarred stomach, he neared the limestone towers, looked up, adjusted the collar of his jacket, quickened his pace, and moved purposefully near the walls. From guardhouse to towers, through walkways, Seán saw trailing shadows. His breathing grew shallow and quick.    

     He looked into the eyes of every man he passed. He saw the face. Knew it was the man. He made his decision. Seán reached inside his jacket, and began to laugh.


     Within ten minutes, Seán was escorted from the cement grounds. The men walked slowly. His head down, a stained, brown paper bag in hand, Seán’s eyes watered. Palm out as in supplication, he reached for assistance. Preoccupied, no one made eye contact.  

     “He’s on an anti-psychotic, but this damn place won’t approve it,” someone said. “Be careful of him, he hears voices and has imaginary friends. He’ll be buried in the hole.” The sun caught Seán’s face as three uniformed men hauled him away with his life’s possessions in a brown paper bag.  

     Within minutes, he stood stunned inside a first-floor cell. Seán looked at his bloodied his white T-shirt; then bag in hand, he watched the shadows weave through the walls. His eyes watered. “Why? Why do they keep talking? The voices.” His right shoulder pressed against the wall, he paced and waited for Kilmer’s.


From the Archives: Sanctuary in Orlando

From the Archives: Sanctuary in Orlando

White Privilege

White Privilege