The morning I left prison, I carried two black garbage bags packed with letters and legal papers across the yard to the gate in the chain-link fence separating the Reception and Diagnostic Unit from the general population. I waited for the guards to notice me and let me in.

I made parole a couple of months before at a perfunctory hearing before the board. Now I was five weeks past my minimum parole date.  I was waiting for “paperwork”. After eight years, nobody seemed in a hurry to let me go.

The previous evening during count, I heard, “Horner, pack your sh-t .” It was the official announcement of my imminent departure, said as an afterthought as the guards left the pod.

I called my wife. I made the rounds of the unit to say goodbye. I had spent years of my life with some of these guys. I knew them well. I knew their crimes. I was almost embarrassed to tell them of my good fortune. It was a mystery why I was leaving and they were staying.

I gave away my valuables - my coffee pot, my books, my typewriter. I picked out the best of  my prison greens and threw the rest away. The next morning I gave my sheets and pillow to a podmate. The cell was as empty and impersonal as the day I arrived.  I sat at a table awaiting the call. A few guys poked their heads in the door and wished me luck. When the time came, I walked alone across the empty yard.

I surveyed the familiar scene one last time - the towering brick wall of the old prison block, the bare concrete faces of the South and North Units, the fortress-like Hancock Building, the ubiquitous chain link fence and razor wire. The place was full of memories, but it had never been home.

The guards in R&D made a cursory search of my property. They did not wish me luck or say goodbye. I carried my bags down a dingy brown hall past the delousing showers to the sally port door. I surrendered my prison I.D. to a guard behind a plate glass window and left the building via the same steel door I entered eight years before. This time I stood alone on the tarmac – no handcuffs, no shackles, no guards.

The first of the twenty-foot tall vehicle gates slid open, its chain-link rattling and banging. I walked through.  It closed behind me. The second gate slid noisily open. I stepped into the parking lot. The gate rattled closed with an echoing clang signalling the end of this most bizarre of graduation ceremonies.

I was outside the fence. I scanned the parked cars. My wife was not there. I started to walk toward the visiting room entrance when a Department of Corrections squad car pulled alongside.

"Are you Horner?" demanded the guard behind the wheel.

"Yes," I said. "I'm waiting for my wife."

"Well, you can't stay on prison property," he said. "You'll have to wait over there." He pointed to the sidewalk across the street.

I obeyed this final incomprehensible order, hefted my posessions, crossed the two lanes of traffic and dropped the bags next to a hydrant.

Cars whizzed by kicking up dust. I waited. It was a sunny May morning, not unlike the day I arrived. But today the Spring colors were muted. I viewed them through the smoke and ash of  eight wasted years. I searched inside myself for feelings of joy at being finally free. All I found was a hollow saddness.

A car slowed to a stop beside me.

“Phil?” said the white-bearded driver.

“Chris!” I exclaimed. “Have you seen my wife?”

“I just spoke to her,” Chris said. “She’s getting gas. She was here earlier and they told her they didn’t know when you would be released.  They said it could be hours.” He chuckled. “I guess it wasn’t. Hop in.”

A short while later I sat in the front seat of my family’s car in the parking lot of Panera Bread. Right there I stripped off my greens and pulled on the clothes my wife had brought. I didn’t wait to change in the rest room. I didn’t want to walk through the restaurant door in prison garb. I peeled the ironed-on name tags from the shirt and pants before throwing them in a dumpster. I saved the tags as a souvenier of inmate number 29992.

At last I was ready to enjoy the best cup of coffee I’d had in a very long time.