“So, I hear you’re interning with Amnesty now.” My mother, Priya, and I were back on death row, visiting Troy. I could hear his soothing, bass voice drawl over the name. Am-nes-tee.
“I started last Monday.”
“How do you like it?”
“I was nervous at first because I thought I had to dress up and be formal. But the atmosphere is really relaxed. The staff doesn’t treat the interns like they’re beneath them. The people are really interesting and the work is too. And the best thing is the casual dress code. I hate dressing formally.”
Troy studied the untamed scruff on my face. “I can tell.” He paused before asking, “And what about you, Priya? How is school?”
“I went to prom!” my sister eagerly replied.
Troy chuckled. “That’s right, you did. Gautam, what’s this I hear about Priya going to prom when she’s just a freshman and you not going at all?”
“How are your dance moves?”
“He’s a pretty bad dancer,” Priya chimed in.
“Is that so?” He laughed, his eyes shining. “Maybe I can help you. My friend and I, we invented this move. What was it called? I can’t remember. But one night, we went to a club and we started doing this.” He raised his arms in the air and rhythmically bobbed his head between them. “And what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to time it with the music, and then do this . . .” He bobbed his head to one side. “Then this . . .” And he bobbed his head to the other side. “After that, you’ve got to loosen up your shoulders and move like this!” He continued to bob his head while holding up his palms and waving his arms.
Priya giggled as I tried to imitate him.
I sighed. “I can’t do it.”
Troy laughed. “When my friend I went to this dance party, we were the only ones doing this move. But we came back to the club a week later and everybody was doing it!” He smiled and performed the dance once more.
I was about to try again when movement beyond the metal grille behind Troy interrupted us.
“See that guy over there?” Troy looked over at a man behind the grille. The man sported tinted glasses and a large afro.
“He looks sort of like Elvis,” my mother commented.
He noticed us watching him and walked over until he stood directly behind Troy and smiled. “What’s up Troy?”
“Just hanging out with my friends, Carlton. This is Kavita, Pranavi, and Gautam.”
“You’re Gautam? The one who wrote a book on chess? And the poems?”
“Yeah,” I replied weakly.
“Troy keeps talking about you guys all the time!” I smiled weakly, and he continued, “Well you folks have a nice day.”
As he walked off, Troy leaned closer and said, “You’ve seen him here before. Back in the day he was known as the Columbus Strangler. In the seventies, they say he raped and killed a bunch of old white women in Columbus. Probably some of the most brutal murders committed by anyone in here. He was abandoned when he was young, by his father. Bounced around for a while as a teenager before all of this started happening. If you look around, a lot of these guys have similar stories. Lotta guys who were abandoned or abused as kids. They’re poor and they get into drugs and then robbing people, and they head down that path until they end up here.”
We tried to process the haphazard shattering of a life encapsulated in a few sentences with words flowing so unquestioningly after each other that the path from victimized child to brutal killer seemed inevitable, even natural.
“Our society assumes they’re beyond repair. And trust me, many of them are. But eighty or ninety percent of the people here could be rehabilitated. Our society believes we can solve our problems by locking people away or killing them. But they don’t realize how much human potential is wasted and destroyed by our system, how much these people can actually contribute to society if they were given the chance. And instead of real leaders who are willing to take a stand and say things are wrong, we just get corrupt politicians who want to stay in power.” Troy looked at me. “That’s why we need young people to change things—because there is so much that is wrong.” He looked away, staring thoughtfully into the distance. “When you’re behind bars, you get a clear view of society crumbling.”
The guards gave us a meaningful look through the other side of the bars. Time was up. Troy hugged each of us, and we walked toward the door. A female guard in her early forties unlocked the door and let us out. We walked out, and two guards quickly entered the visitation cell and surrounded Troy. As they began handcuffing him, Troy called out, “Gautam . . . remember, the only person who can stop you from doing something is you.”