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Thirty Minutes of Freedom

Image by Alexander Andrews

By Marina Bueno

“For English press one,
For a collect call press zero.”

In the heart of every dorm, mounted on peeling, white walls are ancient payphones. They are stains of cold silver with corded black headsets that line the wall across from the officers’ station. They are in the path most traveled, where privacy is a myth.

And yet, everyone prays for the chance to line up for their turn because it is through these invisible lines we remember who we are.

I recite the required phrase into my co-conspirator of escape – “With Global Tel Link my voice is my password.”

Through the flexible metallic cord I am transported home.

From the moment I hear my father’s voice I am back in my mother’s kitchen, listening to her clinking cups while her favorite kettle whistles. I anticipate the steaming Earl Grey as my father sets to the task of finding a good movie for us to watch. Even though my mom loves a good mystery, she will inevitably sit through something that I pick, something with dragons or spaceships. Gone is the instant strap that lashes around my chest if I see an officer approach and reach for restraints. Or the hidden tears I shed the last time I swallowed my words, impotent to protect myself or others from reprisal and the cold clicking of handcuffs that accompany it.

I live my life in thirty minute intervals. That is how long my phone call lasts. It is between the “Go ahead with your call” and “One minute remaining,” that I hear my mother laugh at the hijinks of her little pug. 

My father goes on and on about politics or his favorite new show. All I have are the words I use to cement my place in their lives. My best friend’s baby babbles in the background while we talk. The beautiful three-year old baby girl is the happiest thing in my life. She only knows me through a phone or a screen. She tells me about her trip to the aquarium. She told me that the otters weren’t in their usual enclosure and the puffer fish did puff up. She tells me about her dolls , stuffed animals and shows that she watches. I pray that I can continue to be relevant in a world that I cannot be present in.

Victor Frankl said of his time in concentration camps that the intensification of an inner life helps the prisoner find refuge from the emptiness by letting him escape into the past. During this time, I’m not W26632, I am Marina. I am a daughter and friend who by incredible luck has been able to maintain these relationships through fifteen years of tumult. My time with my friends and family allows me to be a part of the lives of the people that I love the most, and in this way I retain, if only a semblance, of who I used to be.

Marina Bueno is a Cuban-Russian immigrant that was raised in sunny South Florida. She’s been published in Prisoner Express, Prison Journalism Project and Scalawag. When not obsessively jotting down ideas and stressing her editor, she enjoys reading science and fantasy fiction, taking long walks on the recreation field with service dogs in training, and peer pressuring her fellow residents in prison to take Exchange for Change courses. She’s been incarcerated for 15 years and has a huge backlog of journals from which to pull material for her column From the Inside.

This column was made possible with the help of Exchange for Change, a non-profit based in Florida that teaches writing in prisons and runs letter exchanges between incarcerated students and writers studying on the outside.

Exchange for Change believes in the value of every voice, and gives their students an opportunity to express themselves without the fear of being stigmatized. Their work is based on the belief that when everyone has the ability to listen and be heard, strong and safe communities are formed, and that with a pen and paper, students can become agents of change across different communities in ways they may otherwise have never encountered.

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