“Alright James, you are free to go!” the guard said as he unlocked the steel bars that had kept James trapped in these small prison cell for so long. It was only occupied by a single bed on one side and a toilet and basin on the other side. Hanging from the middle of the ceiling was a small dim lamp that swayed from side to side. The light was barely bright enough to cover the whole room so the swaying enabled each part of the room to momentarily receive a bit of light.

James sat on the edge of the bed. He had being waiting for years for freedom. It had come early. On his sentencing, the judge had given him life. He knew he deserved it but a little bit of mercy would have been appreciated. Now, 20 years later, he was now declared a free man. He, or any of the other prisoners could not believe it when the news came a month ago that some of the prisoners would be pardoned. It was unexpected, considering the fact that most of them had made peace with dying here and they did not have rich lawyers to defend them.

However, a good samaritan who happened to know the constitution and the rights of prisoners managed to pardon some of the prisoners. James would only meet him once he left this place. What was particularly surprising was the fact that the man responsible for their freedom chose to help only those with life imprisonment. Everyone else still had to serve their full sentence.

James heard struggle songs of celebration being sung in the corridors. Probably by the free men who were leaving the prison. He smiled as he looked at the cell he had called home for the last twenty years. He had gotten accustomed to having his face face the toilet as he slept. At first it was like hell confined into a small room but after a while he realised that it was what he deserved, anything more would be an insult to all his victims. The tap in the basin usually brought out more dirty water than clean water; most probably how he got diarrhoea.

“Let’s go man, everyone is leaving.” Thabo, a tall black man who had been sentenced to life three years ago for rape and murder said as he stood at James’ cell gate. James told him to go ahead of him, he would meet him on outside. Without hesitation, Thabo excitedly ran off towards the exit. James stood up. He wondered how the outside world would be like, being absent from twenty years of progress certainly wouldn’t make his adjustment back into society easier.

In addition how would he be treated, if his victims found out he was free, how would they respond? They still probably hate me, he thought. He remembered the way people celebrated when the sentence was passed. Even his own mother seemed relieved the last time he saw her as he was taken out of court. But who could blame her? A child is supposed to be a mother’s pride and joy but all James ever brought was pain and disappointment. She had never even visited him in the last twenty years.

All these thoughts made his heart heavy. He felt like the burden he had walked into prison with, he would need to drag out with him. His wounds had not healed even after twenty years. Where was he even going to stay? He had no money, his family rejected him and he never finished school. Furthermore prison taught him how to survive, not how to thrive. Would he even live long out there? What if he ended up turning to a life of crime again? He collapsed back onto the bed. staring at the ceiling, he watched the lamp slowly move from side to side. Not even it agreed with his pardon.

He turned his gaze towards the open the cell gate. These guards were making a mistake, he thought. Letting someone like him out into society was a grave mistake. He would bring hurt just like before. He could not be trusted to follow the law. If he could not obey it before, how would things be any different now? The only way he knew how to survive was to steal from others. The only way to live was to eliminate anyone who was a threat. Slowly turning to his right side. He grabbed onto the uncomfortable small stained white pillow. A tear escaped his right eye. He wanted to sob but he resisted the urge. Survivors do not cry over spilled milk, they just lap it up from the floor.

He regretted all the choices he had ever made. Why did he not listen to his parents, his disobedience indirectly caused the death of his father and he was reminded of that whenever he remembered his mother’s face.

If only he had finished school, none of this would have happened. Maybe in the last twenty years he could have gotten a good job and possibly a pretty wife. But then again he never could talk to girls properly, he would have most probably remained single. There was now no longer hope for any of that. Who would hire an ex convict or marry one for that matter?

“All pardoned prisoners must be out in thirty minutes.” the deep voice of a man boomed through the prison intercoms. James did not move. His mind was made up. He was staying. Prison was not that bad. He no longer remembered what good food tasted like so he was happy with the bland food they served everyday. The many scars that covered his body would scare any new prisoners. Now that the worst prisoners were free, he would no longer need to be anyone’s wife. He would get one himself.

A small smile cracked through his stiff face. He was not sure if it was a genuine smile or one of those fake ones he saw in the black and white TV he had being watching for the last twenty years. He had not smiled in so long, he had forgotten what it felt like to smile out of joy. Joy. He had not thought of that three letter word in such a long time. He wondered if there was any beyond these walls. However, he doubted whether society would even offer joy to a person like him. He knew that he was going to hell for all his crimes; prison was simply preparation for him to burn forever.

Most of the inmates would utter, “See you in hell!” before dying when on their deathbed or when they realised that they would lose a fight. It made no difference whether James stayed or not. After all, he would become an outcast in society. At least he was accepted here in this prison. Furthermore, those who reminded him of why he was in here were probably here for similar reasons. In the outside world, anyone who judged him would be justified.

“James, it’s time to go. We need to lock up again.” A guard, who had being working here for the last five years, said as he stood by the door with a large chunk of keys in his hands.

“I’m not going Siya.” James said softly. “I don’t deserve freedom, I deserve to rot in here!” He looked at the ground.

“No one who was pardoned today deserves to be free, I’d rather see the other guys set free instead. I don’t even understand why they would let the worst prisoners go and those who committed petty crimes stay.” Siya replied with anger oozing out of his voice.

“My brother robbed a bank and didn’t even kill anyone yet he has to stay the full five years? That’s bull. The only reason you are still alive is because the death penalty is illegal.” He shouted. James looked up at Siya. The frustration that washed over Siya’s face made James realise even more how much this whole process was unfair. Who was this man that would choose to free the least deserving of freedom.

“Who got us pardoned?” James asked.

“Does it look like I care?” Siya barked, “Just get out so I can lock up. Whoever it is was was stupid enough to hire a bus to come pick you idiots up. It will take you to his place where you will get your answers.”

James did not move. Siya whistled, two guards appeared a moment later, he told them to take out James. They walked into the cell, James tried to fight them off and they hit him over the head then dragged him out. Throwing him in front of the bus, they closed and locked the gate as they went back into the prison.

All the other prisoners in the bus were confused as to why they had to drag James out. Getting to his feet, he limped onto the bus, ignoring all questions of what just occurred. He sat next to Thabo who had saved him a seat. Looking through the window, he watched the place he had known as home for two decades disappear out of view as the bus drove off.

What do you think?

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