"It's hard to say goodbye," I told Paul Payne several weeks ago. We were sitting in a visitor's cubicle in Uinta 1, he on one side of the glass, myself the other, perched on a round metal stool cemented into the ground.
On Tuesday, April 9, Payne got to say goodbye to the Utah State Prison and the Beehive State. New Mexico took possession of "the body," as prison language goes for transferring inmates. He will now serve 30 years in that state for the murder of an inmate who had ordered a hit on him.
I told Payne's story in a recent City Weekly story called "Prison Made." It was the culmination of conversations and dozens of letters exchanged over more than a year.
I made contact with Payne by chance. His letter to a family advising them that their son had committed suicide in solitary ended up in the postbox of Maxine McNeeley several years ago. At that time, McNeeley was an advocate for Curtis Allgier, another inmate in solitary awaiting trial for the murder of guard Stephen Anderson.
When I started a story on McNeeley and Allgier, I hoped it would shed light on issues surrounding solitary, but instead was taken over by the brutal treatment Allgier meted out to someone who was trying to speak up for him. That story was Love Supreme.
I realized from writing letters to Payne that he had an eloquent insight into the prison system and experience. The prison wouldn't let me interview him directly, citing security concerns, so he put me on his friend list. After a number of false starts, with guards turning me away for reasons I was never clear on, I settled into visiting him on Sunday mornings every three weeks or so for a good eight months.
During those conversations I learned that he read widely—particularly philosophy, science and novels—and yet doesn't actually like reading. His ADHD, he says, demands that he finish a book, whether he likes it or not. Solitary, admittedly, leaves him little else to do, beside working out with cell mates—he'd do 10 pushups, then shout out "set" to his neighbor, Lester Monroe, who then would do the same, although neither could see if the other was actually doing the exercises—and focusing on his legal battles with the prison.
The glimpses he afforded into the routine of prison life were always fascinating. He talked about making a Christmas cake by putting chocolate, broken pieces of biscuit and other ingredients into a plastic bag, submerging it in his sink in hot water, massaging it until he had a log of mush, then letting it cool and harden. But last Christmas while making the log, the bag broke and the chocolate mush went everywhere. Later, he found insects stuck to pieces of dried cake on the wall.
Payne appealed Judge David Nuffer's dismissal of his lawsuit, but now that he's out of the state, he's uncertain what will be the fate of his legal initiative to improve conditions in solitary. He undoubtedly shed light on how the prison uses solitary to house troublesome mentally. It was his suggestions that helped shape a story I wrote in 2012 called "Lost in the Hole." But the most important lesson I learned from him was to try to see the humanity behind every name listed as an inmate in Utah's state prison.
Unlike other inmates I've talked to, he was never harsh nor vindictive about "check-ins," typically convicted child abusers or snitches who requested solitary for protection. Rather he always demonstrated an astute psychological fascination with the mind games that other inmates attempted to play on usually vulnerable inmates, typically for their own amusement.
I visited with him for three hours the Sunday before he left for his new life in New Mexico. I know he is happy to leave Utah, even though his battle to change the system for the better was far from finished.
He would always mimic my body posture, something I've heard reporters advocate as a way of demonstrating empathy. Along with asking me about what I was cooking that Sunday—I would often wonder as I regaled him with a recipe whether it was torture for a man whose access to food was so limited—he'd occasionally pick up on my awkwardness about how to say goodbye at the end of each visit.
In the past other, inmates would press the palm of their hand against the glass for me to do the same as a way of shaking hands. Toward the end, I copied Payne's gesture of lightly bumping my fist against my heart—it felt like a soldier's salute, and when I asked him the origins of it, he mentioned something about respect.
That last time we stood up to say goodbye, the chains as ever around his ankles, I pressed the knuckles of my fist against the glass and he did the same. I recalled yet again how he wrote in his initial complaint about one of the worst aspects of solitary was never feeling the touch of another's hand on his shoulder, a clap on his back in support.
I stepped outside the drab, squat building to feel the sun on my face, the barbed wire around Supermax casting its spiraled shadows. In a few days, Uinta 1 would lose with Payne's departure a voice that many, I am sure, both among inmates and guards, had come to rely on for his stability, reason and insight in a place where so many others had lost their minds.
I went through various locked doors, waited for the guard tower to open one gate, then another, showed my driver's license several more times, then got into my car and sat in its dusty silence.
Payne taught me so much and I wondered what I had given him in return. We talked about Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, at one point. That image of Chief Bromden, played by Will Sampson, breaking out of the asylum, came to both our lips at the same time.
I like to think that Payne, even with his 30 years yet to serve in New Mexico, has in his own way broken out of the darkness that Utah subjected him to for so long, and found the first steps on a path to freedom.