After 20 Years in Prison, All I Can Write Is Fantasy
Writing about technology I don't understand and have never ever seen is depressing. So I invent my own worlds.
Illustration by Dola Sun
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I've been locked away for over 20 years, during which time things sure have changed in the world—or at least your world, where computer programs talk and cars drive themselves.
Before coming to prison, if I needed to make a call while driving, I was forced to pull over and find a pay phone. Cell phones were these big clunky things that cost a fortune and would fit only in the glove box of your car.
And computers, man, don't even get me started. Laptop, desktop, tablet—I probably couldn't turn one on even if my own parole depended on it.
To be honest, technology scares me and most others who have been incarcerated for any significant amount of time. But, like many of us, I crave it and the things that can be accomplished with it on the outside.
Several years ago, I spent a long stretch in a solitary confinement cell. There, I realized two things: 1) that I was beginning to lose my mind, and 2) that the world was passing me by.
I devised a simple plan to overcome the first problem: I began to write. I had this tiny, short, flexible pen that barely fit in my hand (it was like writing with a noodle), and I begged or borrowed all the paper I could lay my hands on. It never got so bad that I was forced to write on toilet paper, but I considered that a few times.
Writing allowed me to finally soar free—I lived vicariously through my characters. I know that sounds silly, but other writers of fiction might agree. If I write about a wheat field, I'm there, seeing the wheat stalks sway in the wind. If I run my hand through the stalks, I feel the rough grain brush against my fingertips.
But I also discovered early on that if I tried to write about a technology that I had never experienced, my scenes would ultimately fail to come across as genuine.
For instance, take pumping gas. When I was free, if I wanted to pump some gas, all I needed to do was grab the nozzle, flip a lever, pump away, and pay cash. Now, I can't imagine what it must be like to refuel one. Blinking lights, flashing doo-dads, slots for this, slots for that, fingerprint scans, DNA tests, who knows what?
As you can see, I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Which is how I solved my second dilemma: I write mostly fantasy. On the page, I create my own world, with its own rules—and its own tools and technology. This way, all my scenes ring true simply because to me they are.
In my longest story, "Blood and Steel," I follow the chaotic lives of two royal siblings, Jax and Emily Northwarden. I watch as Jax falls in love at a young age, only to have that love ripped from him by the heartless High Council of Magicians, who rule a large portion of the Kingdom of Solace. This of course causes Jax to flee across the mighty Cold Mountains to a distant land where his fate unfolds, while Emily is left to fend for herself, as the High Council assassinates her parents and invades Kingdom Kraig (their home) in an attempt to lure Jax back.
It's just fantasy. But it has allowed me to adapt and to overcome the isolation of prison. I cry when Jax and Emily cry; my heart soars with theirs. I've ridden horses across open plains, climbed over and under mountains, buried loved ones and birthed new life.
I wish I were free, but not for the reasons that you, my readers, might think. When I lay in my cell and daydream of freedom, I don't fantasize about women, flashy cars, or what my next crime or crimes might be, as some men in here certainly do.
No, I fantasize about how great my life could be if I owned a laptop (and knew how to use it) instead of this ancient typewriter of mine. I'm not knocking the thing—it and I have spent many thousands of hours together—but I dream of what I might accomplish in my writing if I had unlimited memory and access to the Internet. I dream of what life might be like with the entire world opened up to me.
Not only would I be able to reliably write about cell phones and gas pumps, I'd be able to write about anything and everything. I'd be able to use modern technology to write words that might help change other people's lives for the better—because they'd be relatable words, not false ones. Instead of being a drain on society, I could become a contributing member.
Is that not reason enough to at least consider giving us here in prison a little boost in technology?
I mean, come on, the least you guys could do is bump us up to, say, late 1990's tech. What harm could that do? Wouldn't it benefit society as a whole if the men and women leaving these places had at least some idea how to use a debit card?
Jerry Metcalf, 42, is incarcerated at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving 40 to 60 years for second-degree murder and two years for a weapons felony, both of which he was convicted of in 1996.