On a cool April morning, my mother pulled up outside the halfway house in Augusta, Ga., where I had been living since my release from federal prison. She was one of the few people who had supported me during my years behind bars. I sat in the passenger’s seat of the black Ford Fusion as she drove to the DMV, where I was scheduled to obtain a new driver’s license.
After I passed the road test, she congratulated me in the parking lot. Then, she handed me the key fob and suggested I take the wheel for the ride back to the halfway house.
I felt awkward at first. The burgundy leather driver’s seat hugged me closely, and I struggled while figuring out how to adjust it to my liking. The digital dashboard and touch-screen display were alien to me. And there wasn’t the kind of ignition system that I had known before my time in prison, the kind with a key and a slot. My mother had a good laugh before she told me how to start the car by pressing a button on the fob while holding down the brake.
Now that the engine was running, I felt a burst of energy and adrenaline coursing through my body. The r.p.m. needle was rising as I drove toward the Mike Padgett Highway, and I felt something that I had not felt in a long time: free.
I had endured over a decade of incarceration, feeling caged and hopeless. I had been rightfully convicted but wrongfully sentenced to more than 15 years (of which I served nearly 13). Along the way, I had lost almost everything: my family, my friends, my dignity. And I had forgotten what it was like to to have choices, to have fun.
As I drove, I was nervous and excited at the same time, in part because I was breaking the rules of the halfway house, an infraction that could have sent me back to prison. It was stated in the handbook that we were not to drive until permitted by the facility and only in an approved vehicle. After all, we residents were still considered inmates.
I took the scenic route, leaving the Mike Padgett Highway for Phinizy Road and Peach Orchard Road. I saw spring blossoms coming to life among leftover autumn leaves. I saw squirrels and deer through the live oaks and cedars. I saw a few people walking along the side of the road and other drivers cruising by. The denser parts of the forest allowed only thin rays of sunlight to get through, but each glare on the windshield felt like a light from heaven.
The rhythm of the road and the wind coming in the cracked windows brought on a surge of nostalgia. I was lost in the landscape, which brought to mind the back roads of my home state, Tennessee. I found myself transported back to my younger years, when driving was pure and exciting, when I had no concerns about flashing blue lights or sirens. Back when driving was fun.
For many years after that — when I earned hundreds of thousands of dollars transporting shipments of illegal narcotics across the South — driving was a dangerous act. I lived in a state of hypervigilance, always ready to duck and dodge the police in a never-ending game of cat and mouse.
I left the country roads for the Gordon Highway. My grip on the steering wheel tightened. I was nervous. I was happy. I was driving.
Reality kicked in on Taylor Street, when the halfway house came into sight. I slowly pulled into the halfway house parking lot under the watchful eyes of other residents and staff. The looks on their faces reflected shock and confusion. I got out of the car and helped my disabled mother back into the driver’s seat. I gave her a kiss and we said goodbye.
I entered the thinly veiled jail as she was driving off. A staff member immediately notified me that I was not supposed to be driving without permission. I apologized and went through the routine pat-down and Breathalyzer test.
Later that evening, I lay down on my bunk, a thin mat over metal springs. In that moment of solitude, as I looked up at the fluorescent ceiling light, I was at peace. Nothing mattered right then — not the nonstop chatter of the other residents, not the lockers slamming, not the toilets flushing. All that mattered was the lit fuse of freedom that burned deep inside me.
Driving had given me a sense of control, joy and possibility. I realized I had a second chance — to start over, to make better choices.
Aaron M. Kinzer is a journalist and poet whose work has appeared in The Marshall Project, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsweek. He is a member of Empowerment Avenue, a collective for incarcerated writers and artists.