The first time I used a screen print machine I was a 19-year-old college drop-out, working at a factory that mass-produced 3M products by local prisoners. I wasn’t a prisoner. I also wasn’t a screen printer. But, I was one of the few people that knew how to work a computer, wouldn’t try to get high off the chemicals, and didn’t ask too many questions. The particular factory I worked at was just a five-minute drove from my house, which was good cause I didn’t have a car. My best friend suggested we both apply for the job one morning while we were on line at McDonalds. She was newly pregnant, looking for a job where she didn’t need to stand on her feet all day, and I was dabbling with the idea that college wasn’t for me, so we applied. Being recent high school graduates jumped us to the top of the application list. When neither of us pissed hot, we got hired.
The company was, and still is I assume, a manufacturer of heating elements, circuits, and LED boards with facilities in both Kansas and Pennsylvania. In my hometown it was one of the few places you could get a decent paying job and benefits with only a high school education. The campus we worked at was also a member of the KansasWorks program, a program billed to “help non-working adults, who lack high school diplomas, learn new skills and find jobs.” This company also partners with the state prison for an Inmate Work Release program, which allows “eligible, non-violent prisoners to work learning new skills,” because studies show that the people who participate in these programs have lower rates of recidivism, and earn higher wages once they complete their sentence. And because Leavenworth is ripe with prisoners and you don’t have to pay them a lot.
Each station had a couple of inmates working on it, with a couple of civilians. My inmate was Lonnie. Because screen printing is a more delicate process than say, wire assembly, and because our equipment was large and stationary, there was only room for two people in the screen printing area, Lonnie and me.
Lonnie was a big guy, at least six feet tall, probably closer to six and a half. He was quiet and sincere. He was obviously gay. You know the type I mean. He never said it, only eluded to it. Winking at the backs of cute men. Smiling a shy smile. He spoke with a pronounced lisp. He’d been in a prison a long time. I didn’t ask him much about his life, nor he mine. He got to work on a bus, one of those long, white inmate transport busses you might occasionally see on the highway. They would drop them off at 5:30 am, and be back to pick them up at 3:00 pm. We worked an eight-hour shift, with two breaks and a lunch. The inmates were not permitted to leave the property and some were not permitted to leave the building, even though the company owned several buildings on a large lot in the city. Lonnie was one of those inmates unable to leave the building. Lonnie was also one of the inmates who had to check-in with a prison guard every few hours. I didn’t know why for a long time, then one day I did.
Lonnie was a murderer. I’d heard this in whispers from other people, but the day Lonnie told me, well, I was still shocked. We were sitting on the steps by the vending machine sharing a Nutter Butter bar. We usually didn’t get to take breaks at the same time, since one of us had to stay at our station, keeping an eye on the ink wells, and what not. But on this day we were slow, so I had been moved to wire assembly. A job I absolutely loathed because it sounds exactly like what it is: You sit on a stool for eight hours and you assemble wires. Ugh. Anyway, because of this, Lonnie and I happened to be on break at the same time. My friend was on a different break, so I was alone, and Lonnie was the only person who sat next to me.
Maybe it was because we were away from our area. We didn’t have a job to focus on. Maybe it was because it had been about three months and he was comfortable with me. Maybe it was just his nature, but I gave him half of my Nutter Butter bar, something I knew I wasn’t supposed to do because that was considered contraband and he in turn thanked me, took a bite of it, and said, “I killed my lover.”
The thing is, I had never had anyone admit a murder to me before. In fact, I don’t think I have since either. Thankfully, I suppose. Yeah, thankfully. So I didn’t really know how to react. Like, do I say, “Oh, okay. Cool.” I mean, he was obviously caught and convicted. He knew what he did. He knew it was not okay. And now I knew what he did too. So there was this sort of awkward silence while we ate our Nutter Butter bars and listened to the sounds of our chews. Then after the Nutter Butter was gone, I looked at Lonnie and asked if he wanted another one. Sure, he said with a smile. Then I walked over and bought a second Nutter Butter bar. Came back, took my spot on the steps, and split the second bar with him. He said thank you and again, we chewed.
I had so many thoughts going through my head. Mainly questions. How? Who? Why? Where? I wasn’t afraid of Lonnie, not once, and this didn’t change anything. I just wanted to know what happened. Because Lonnie didn’t seem like a man who murdered for fun. But pretty soon our second Nutter Butter bars were gone, the bell rang for us to get back to our stations, and we parted ways. Later when I told my friend what he had said she gasped and said he was probably lying. That they wouldn’t let people convicted of murder work there. I shrugged in agreement, but I knew she was wrong.
A few months later Lonnie wasn’t there one day. A fellow inmate who sometimes worked with us came over to take his post. I asked where Lonnie was and the inmate said he was “in max,” which meant Lonnie had been locked up again. No halfway house, no more work-release. He went back in to maximum security. I was sad that I would never see Lonnie again.
A couple months later I quit. Enrolled at the University of Kansas, started my life over. But I have never forgotten about Lonnie. And I never will.
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