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      THE PRISON GATE CLANGED SHUT behind Kate Neilson, the sound as loud and harsh in her ears as coupling train cars. She’d heard that clatter of metal against metal hundreds of times during her five years of incarceration. Yet with each slam, her stomach lurched and her shoulders jerked. Try as she might to steel herself against the jarring crash, she couldn’t help but react like a startled bird.



     For the first time, Kate stood on the visitor side of the barred gate that separated the reception area from the wide fluorescent-lit hallway leading to the cellblocks. She still had to walk out the front door of the building and through a gate in the fence that surrounded Patterson State Penitentiary. But she’d crossed the final interior barrier.


     The female correctional officer who escorted her, Officer Arledge, paused and spoke into the radio clipped to her gray shirt, notifying the control desk of their location. Kate clutched the plastic sack that held the meager possessions she’d accumulated during her time at Patterson and took a steadying breath. The room smelled vaguely familiar.


     Floor wax. That’s what it was. The smooth surface at her feet was so highly polished it reflected the ceiling lights. On the other side of the bars, the gray concrete floors were mopped by inmates but never waxed.


     She could have turned for one last glimpse through the gate. After all, the building housed the culture that had transformed her from a lost-and-lonely Pittsburgh street tramp into a college graduate with a marketing degree. Instead, she focused on the double glass doors at the other end of the room, doors that led to freedom and to her future.


     Unlike the muted light that filtered from the glass blocks imbedded in her cell wall, sunshine streamed through the doors, illuminating columns of dust motes. But as much as she itched to dart across the room and charge outside, she had one more hurdle to clear. Between her and liberty stood a reception desk staffed by two male COs seated before computer monitors.


     She had a side view of the men. Like the female officer, they wore light gray shirts, dark gray pants and black duty belts. Loops and pouches attached to the belts held flashlights, pepper spray, eye protection, handcuffs, handcuff keys and more—but no guns. Kate couldn’t see their feet, but she’d never seen COs wear anything but black work boots identical to what the officer beside her had on her feet.


      Arledge motioned her toward the desk. “The last phase of your checkout is here.”


     Earlier that morning, just before she left her unit, Kate had been strip-searched. She’d endured the humiliating contraband hunt on more occasions than she cared to remember, and she hoped to never again hear, “Strip, Neilson.” But right now, she would comply with everything the COs asked of her—whatever it took to walk out those doors today.


© 2024 Rebecca Carey Lyles, All Rights Reserved