High Crime

I was checked in by Ann, a redheaded woman in her late 40s or perhaps early 50s. She was amiable enough but was poised to be a bitch if necessary. Ann spent the nine o’clock hour of her Wednesday morning checking the contents of my duffel bag to ensure that I hadn’t entered with any contraband.

I was sure that all of my belongings were going to pass inspection because I hadn’t brought all that much with me, especially considering the fact that Hope House would my home for at least the next four months. The Hope House: I hope that I can escape being a target of the staff in this building. I hope that I complete all of my work. I hope I can complete my community service hours with expedience. I hope I graduate through each of the four levels of this halfway house. I hope this is the last time I ever have to live in a place like this.

There’s a team building exercise called “deserted island” that people use to gain insight into others’ interests. When you play “deserted island” you have to name your five favorite books or CD’s that you have, five “must have” items that you would want to have with you if you were stuck, say, on a deserted island.

I had called the halfway house the day before to clarify what exactly I could enter the building with. The list was as follows: 10 pairs of pants/shorts, 10 shirts, 5 pairs of shoes (to include shower shoes, work shoes/boots etc.), 10 pairs of socks, 10 pair of underwear, 2 coats (seasonally appropriate), 5 CDs, 5 cassettes, 5 VHS tapes, 5 DVDs and either a DVD player or VCR with a TV screen not to exceed 13 inches.

Nothing was said of books. I guess it’s assumed most felons don’t read that much.

I brought the approved clothing items, a travel DVD player and the musical answers to my deserted island questions.

Although I wasn’t sure it was allowed, I also brought a copy of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” I couldn’t think of a better time to learn whatever the hell Bacon’s Rebellion was all about.

Ann flipped through the pages of the book while holding it upside down, seeing if anything hidden inside it might fall out. She poked through and unfolded my clothing and was opening and going through every pocket of my duffel bag when she came across some dryer sheets. Ann didn’t care for the dryer sheets. Apparently, past Hope House residents had used dryer sheets to smuggle cocaine into the facility. After she gave me an incriminating look I threw them away as she asked me to.

Getting acclimated to Hope House has taken some doing. It’s not easy to move from the warmth of your own home to the cold and sterile environment of state rehabilitation. I miss my friends and I miss my freedom. Sometimes I sit for extended periods of time in the bathroom and take longer than needed showers just because it is the only time I can be guaranteed to be alone. I live with about forty other gentlemen and there are typically anywhere from two to four people at the R.O.’s (Resident Officer’s) desk.

Every resident has to perform a detail. Most of these jobs are daily and can be completed in about a half an hour. The tasks maintain the cleanliness of the building, the dining room, bathrooms, hallways and kitchen. There is a list of rotating duties that most work from. I feel fortunate to have a permanent detail: Twice a week I buff the floors of the dining room. It takes a little over an hour to do and I find it therapeutic.

The men of Hope House share either a two or three-man room. They’re tiny rooms. It wasn’t too long after coming here that I was offered a two-man room. I felt lucky but that quickly passed. I sleep about eight feet away from someone whose penchant for scratching his testicles offends both my eyes and my ears. Years of being in prison have left this person without shame. It’s not uncommon for me to be engaged in a conversation with him while at the same time his hand goes into his pants to aggressively attack whatever demon makes a person itch the way he must. As visually stunning as that is, it doesn’t end there. I wish that I was kidding when I say that I’ve been awakened on multiple occasions by the sound of his incessant scratching. Steven Spielberg should send a recording crew out here to capture it–he could use it in a movie involving alien monsters tearing the skin off of innocent human beings.

Every hour a headcount is taken and the R.O.’s throw the door to my room open to see if I am present. The doors get opened every hour–day and night–which kept me from getting any quality sleep the first few nights that I was here.

The “beds” at the Hope House are single cots that are six feet long. I’m six foot three. I either sleep with my head on the metal bar on one end or with my feet sticking out underneath the metal bar that frames the opposite side of the bed. When I opt for the latter it’s not uncommon for my feet to be hit by a swinging door when the R.O.’s are doing their headcount check.

I’ve often heard it said that “happiness comes from within.” For the most part I’ve believed this statement–but only to a point. I’ve always been a fairly happy person, but the external conditions were always closer to being under my control. I worked as a bartender at the Deadwood bar before they made me quit due to the proximity of all of those bottles of liquor I am not to touch. This was the best job that I’ve ever had because it didn’t feel like a job. I worked with and served friends of mine. Every night I was paid to help make a party happen.

It’s all gone now, so I’ve had to learn to look inward for my happiness. I concentrate on the things that I have rather than dwelling on what I’ve lost.

I’ve stopped taking the bus to get to work like I did when I started living here. I ride my bike instead and enjoy the cool wind against my face. It’s so much sweeter than the recycled air running its course through the ventilation system at Hope House.

I’ve been steadily working my way through Hope House without a single report of wrongdoing on my record. I smile and joke with the other residents and even the staff as much as possible just to stay positive.

That being said, the idea that I had to be incarcerated for enjoying something that never led me to hurt anything or anyone in the first place still lends itself to some mental discomfort.

All of the people that live in halfway houses are felons. The Hope House is a halfway house. I am in the Hope House. Therefore I am a felon. This is a syllogism that pains my fingers to write. It’s absolutely the truth though; I am living here in some legal netherworld in between freedom and a state prison.

Why am I here? Why am I greatly restricted from seeing my friends and family, playing with my dog and kissing my girlfriend?

Because of a flower. Well, I should be a bit more truthful about it: it’s a weed. The weed: Mary Jane, grass, pot, bud, the chronic, dope, etc. The plant so nice we had to name it several thousand times.

Hunter S. Thompson said, “In a closed society where everyone is guilty, the only crime is getting caught, the only crime is stupidity.” I possessed the kind of stupidity that could only be described as felonious.

I met Carl (not his real name) through a friend and had utilized his services a handful of times to procure some of the greenest, stickiest and sweetest smelling ganja that I or any of my friends could find at the time. Of course if I had any idea that Carl was under surveillance by the Iowa City Police Department I would have never crossed the area between the porch and the large room that the front door opened into.

Having just been a smoker and not a grower or seller, I never thought that my marijuana habit would have state prison-level consequences. Any weed that I had was for my exclusive personal use. I’ve never stolen anything, hurt anybody or vandalized any property while under the influence of marijuana.

It’s not that I didn’t know that marijuana was illegal (that’s why I got it from Carl and not at Walgreen’s); what I’m still trying to come to terms with is how the state of Iowa was able to make a felon out of me instead of giving me the misdemeanor charge that most people get when busted with possession of a controlled substance.

The way it was explained to me was that since Carl’s house was under surveillance and they had proof that I had purchased the plant in question from him, I helped him commit a felony. My crime was “Solicitation to Commit a Felony,” which is itself a Class D Felony punishable by up to five years in prison–what my cohorts in Hope House call a “nickel.”

We live in a college town where I’ve seen news reports of people dying of alcohol poisoning, drinking to the point of committing homicides while blackout drunk and passing out in the middle of an Iowa winter, very nearly dying of hypothermia and losing their fingers and toes to frostbite.

There has never been one documented case of someone dying due to a THC overdose (the active ingredient in marijuana). Marijuana is far more frequently associated with laziness than it is with the kind of aggression needed to commit a homicide and I’ve never known anyone to be too high to not have sense enough to come in out of the cold in the middle of January.

I will forever carry the stigma that comes with having a felony on my record. I will complete my stay at the Hope House, live clean and sober though the period of probation that will follow it and, as soon as I’ve fulfilled my legal obligations, I will leave my home state for one with less draconian marijuana laws.

There is no doubt that within my lifetime marijuana will be made legal. Fifteen states and Washington D.C. have made medicinal marijuana legal, which opens the door for change. Eventually Iowa will also surrender to reason, but it won’t happen easily. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “If there is no struggle there is no progress…power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

As I’ve said, I plan on taking my leave of this state when I am able. Right now I’m legally bound stay here in town and while I’m here I plan on doing whatever I can do to affect change. I must plead ignorance as I’m not sure what I can do to advance things besides making a donation to the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws. I want to do more; I want to do whatever I can.

If you have suggestions for ways that I can amend things please write to me. My name is Mitch Emerson and because I am a felon I live at Hope House Residential Facility, 2501 Holiday Road Coralville, IA 52241-2781.