Correctional Institutions in the state of Florida are named after their locale, however ironic. Evan Wilhelm began his twenty-year sentence for manslaughter at Century. Conor McBride was incarcerated Liberty. Both Evan and Conor applied to the faith and character-based prison at Wakulla and each got transferred there. Wakulla offers many programs and perks in exchange for high behavioral expectations. Any infraction will result in transfer. However, random transfers are also inevitable: Florida Corrections’ routinely reassigns inmates to minimize gang influence. Evan and Conor could be whisked away at any time, and they know that any other prison will be less amenable than their current placement.
The two young men do everything they can to inculcate themselves into Wakulla. They each attend programs and are working toward online degrees. Conor has become a certified law clerk and teaches classes on ‘victim rights’ to fellow inmates. When Wakulla’s library needed a clerk, he was able to move to a lower security environment to take that position. Evan has developed a beautiful drawing style, reflective figures rendered with a single number 2 pencil.
During dinner at the Grosmaire’s, and again at the Wilhelm’s, the phone rang about 7:30 p.m. A recorded voice iterated the procedure for accepting a collect call from the Florida Department of Corrections. Each family knew exactly what to do.
During evening hours a phone line is open in the barrack. Prisoners line up for fifteen minute collect calls. If everyone participated, an inmate might be able to make two or three calls a week. But prison is no more equitable than any other aspect of our society. Evan and Conor often call every day, as many prisoners have no one to accept their call. The evening we spoke with Conor no other inmates were in line; we enjoyed a pair of fifteen-minute conversations.
Conor was full of news. He had just applied for an IT position, which he considered a good career move. Four sets of parental eyes shifted to one another, questioning whether that job would offer Conor the same preferences that his clerk position provides. For my part, as father of a twenty-six-year old free worlder, I marveled how my son and I might have a similar conversation. The parameters of opportunity are different in prison, but Conor still approaches life from the perspective of an educated, affluent white person. He optimizes the system, rather than being a victim of it.
Which begs the question, ‘Do Evan and Conor get special treatment because they are white? Because their families are so involved in their welfare? They answer is probably ‘yes’ but also, ‘so what.’ When a prisoner from Evan’s barracks at Wakulla sent an anonymous threat to a guard, every man in that dorm was transferred back to his base prison. Bob Wilhelm wrote a direct appeal to the warden at Wakulla. It worked. Evan was the only inmate returned to the faith and character based facility.
We live in a world of white male privilege. Why should we be surprised that transfers to prison? Kate Grosmaire has reached out to people involved with prison reform for the Black community, a group disproportionately impacted by our penal system. “They understand that what happened to Conor could not happen to one of them – yet. But they tell us, ‘because the legal system did this for you, they will have to do it for us as well.” That’s how change happens, from the bottom up, from the privileged to the disenfranchised.
Wherever the cyclist with the question shows up for dinner, the conversation turns philosophical. Michael McBride asked his son for perspective on his prison time. Conor replied, “I’m doing well considering a lot has changed in the past six years. It’s been a mental and spiritual journey, a strong one. The love and forgiveness the Grosmaire’s have shown me allows me to accept responsibility in a way that shame and guilt could have never allowed.
“Taking responsibility on killing Ann really let me focus on what was driving my anger. It comes down to acknowledging my faith, accepting that God loves me, not just in a slogan way, but that He ‘likes’ me. It’s more personal. It allows me to learn how my anger grew from insecurity. I also have the opportunity to be responsible. In prison, I have a job that is responsible.”
His mother Julie followed up, “Where do you see yourself in twenty years?”
“Out of prison. Possibly with a family, my own wife and kids; probably have a job. I have a lot of things in mind that would honor Ann’s memory. Maybe get involved in wildlife work. Ann loved that.”
Fourteen minutes into the phone call, a recorded voice cuts in to inform everyone there is one more minute. The McBride family tradition is to use that minute for one person to lead a prayer. This night, Conor leads all of us in praise and thanksgiving.
How will we live tomorrow?
“I have a hard enough time living day to day here. I try not to look to tomorrow. The farther down the road I look, the darker it looks. So I try to take the short view. I have twelve years to complete here. If I think about that, I cannot see my way to do it. So I reason, ‘You don’t have to do twelve years right now. It’s 7:37 p.m. I only have to do the next few minutes, the next few hours, until morning.’” – Evan Wilhelm
“From a restorative justice perspective I would hope we live more responsibly as a society. We look at crime as a mistake and we put away criminals to get them out of our lives. But the guys here are more than their mistakes. We regret our actions and want to get back into the mainstream society. When people are defined by the worst action of their lives, we are missing the full picture of who they are and what they are capable of. I am much more than a murderer. Other guys are more than rapists. I would like us to live tomorrow with more understanding that people are people first.” – Conor McBride