A month ago in this space, I shared a dilemma with my readers. A 31-year-old man whom I had tutored when he was a high school boy is about to be released from the latest of three state-prison terms. I had once entertained high hopes for Ricky, as I called him in my column, but I had never quite trusted him after he borrowed a car of ours for keeps after his high school prom. (We eventually got the car back, damaged, and he made partial restitution, but the experience was a trust-buster.) Still, Ricky's older brother, whom I called Victor, is convinced that Ricky is a reformed man, was a reformed man even before his latest incarceration, and deserves a hand up.

My dilemma is self-induced. After receiving a letter from Ricky, I had written him saying that I wanted to see him after his release. But then I began to fear that, as a lawyer friend warned me, prison is a school of deception. Without knowing quite what I'm afraid of, I'm afraid. I chose to invite my readers to comment on that fear, perhaps drawing on comparable experiences of their own.

Ricky is now just weeks away from freedom and has been transferred to a low-security facility where conditions are a step closer to civilian life. On release, he will be deported to Mexico, having forfeited his right to remain legally in the United States. He will quickly find his way back across the border, however. His fiancée--they became engaged just before his arrest--is waiting for him. Victor, who is married himself and has two young sons, has a room in his apartment cleaned up and ready for Ricky's return.

Sisterbluerose advises that I let Ricky back into my world if, and only if, he completes his restitution for the VW bug he "borrowed."

The difference between Victor's mood and my own is almost comical. Bitterly critical of Ricky after his first misdeeds, Victor speaks of him now as one might speak of a brother returning home from military service overseas. Sisterbluerose, one of those who posted a response to my first column about Ricky, writes that the idealistic prose poem that Ricky quoted in his letter to me was not original: She read it a year ago online. I stand corrected in my self-serving thought that my tutoring of years ago had turned Ricky into a jailhouse poet, though he didn't actually claim that the poem was his, and the rest of his letter was written in perfectly creditable prose.

Sisterbluerose advises that I let Ricky back into my world if, and only if, he completes his restitution for the VW bug he "borrowed." This suggestion, I must say, reminds me of something I learned about prison after Ricky's first release. When you get out of prison in California, nobody gives you bus fare home or 10 bucks to buy lunch. Whatever was in your wallet when you were arrested, that's what's in it when you're released or paroled. If Victor hadn't mailed Ricky the bus fare from Modesto to Los Angeles, Ricky's job search would have begun right then and there--without a home address or a telephone or, in any way, a fighting chance.

Do you know where the jails are in your town? Most people of my acquaintance in Los Angeles have no idea where the jails in our area are. I myself was among the prison-ignorant on an afternoon a few years ago when I stopped at a construction site, out of idle curiosity, to inspect the strange, windowless double octagon of a building that was going up. That building, which I had taken to be some kind of power plant, turned out to be a gigantic annex to the Central Men's Jail of Los Angeles County. I had never visited the jail before, had never known where it was, and had never thought to ask. That day, I found myself standing next to it.

The jail and its annex lie not far from the Los Angeles River, separated from it by nondescript, warehouse-like buildings and rubble-strewn vacant land. The jail is easy enough to visit, once you know where it is, but it's not especially conspicuous. There's little vehicular traffic past its main entrance. As for foot traffic, I was the only pedestrian to be seen on the street the day I strolled up.

Or almost the only one. Coming round the annex toward the main jail, I nearly tripped over a clean-cut white man in his early 20s, dressed in a freshly laundered white T-shirt and gray wash pants, sitting disconsolately on the curb. He greeted me as if I'd come looking for him. In what sounded like an Appalachian accent, he said that he had just got out of jail. Would I give him money to buy a bus ticket home?

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