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?

Money for a bus ticket is the oldest panhandler's line around, and I gave him the same cold shoulder I usually give panhandlers. Only later did it strike me that panhandlers go where there are people to panhandle. This guy was sitting on the curb with his head in his hand at a spot where no one was likely to show up for hours. He was in the same pickle that Ricky had been in. No wonder people don't want jails in their neighborhoods.

I take it for granted that Ricky will not soon be in a position to make restitution for the "borrowed" car of 15 years ago. But does that mean, as Jim Holman claims in his miniboard response, that Ricky is a "career criminal"? I don't think so. As I indicated in my first column, Ricky has done plenty of honest work in his life. Holman implies that Ricky has a "criminal mentality," which a "nice, normal" guy like me has trouble recognizing for what it is.

Well, maybe so, but I have to ask whether Holman would consider any ex-con a candidate for rehabilitation, or whether he considers criminal conviction to be something like the AIDS virus: Once you've got it, you've got it for life. Sisterbluerose knows of a prisoner who finds the Lord every time he's in prison--and loses the Lord every time he gets out. Surely some prisoners are like that, but are all prisoners like that?

Holman implies that Ricky has a "criminal mentality," which a "nice, normal" guy like me has trouble recognizing for what it is.

I refuse to think so. Moreover, I see a brutal leveling taking place in the American attitude toward criminals. Mhappenow invokes the Hurricane Carter case to caution me. But Carter, whatever his innocence or guilt, was accused of first-degree murder, while the worst that Ricky has ever done is take part in a drug deal. Is there no difference between these two?

The voters of California have just approved Proposition 21, a ballot initiative by which 14-year-olds accused of serious crimes may be tried as adults. But buried in the small print of the initiative is a breathtaking revision of the graffiti law. Under the old law, if the amount of the "defacement, damage, or destruction" was $50,000 or more, the vandal could be punished by as much as a year in jail or a fine of not more than $10,000. Under the new law, a vandal can pull the same year in jail or the same $10,000 fine for damage of just $400.

Think of how easily a kid can do $400 worth of damage to an automobile fender in a reckless moment. Think of thousands of imprisoned young vandals, and thousands of prison cells to house them. Above all, think of the dozens of lucrative contracts to provide all those new prison cells. I utterly loathe graffiti, but I can't see sending a 14-year-old to jail for a year over a $400 spree with a can of spray paint. This is the brutal leveling I'm talking about, and I suspect that those behind it have public money more than public safety foremost in their minds.

But to come to the sticking point, Proposition 21 and my Beliefnet readers have confirmed for me my decision to seek a reunion with Ricky. I promise to report back in a future column on how it turns out and, as it may be, to allow my readers to say, "We told you so."

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