After about three hours on the airship flying towards the center of the Gulf of Mexico, I almost can’t believe my eyes.
This prison island is breathtaking.
It’s shaped like a crescent moon. But it isn’t flat. The back is a high hillside, and slopes down towards the bay inside the crescent.
It reminds me of an Irish coastal island, especially because of how green it is.
All up the hillside, the sun reflects off glass windows of buildings dotting the hillside like rhinestones. They look half-buried in the hillside.
I guess I should have checked out the website.
Flying lower now, I see that the entire bay is closed off.
The tips of the crescent get thinner and thinner until floating structures connect them. They look moveable so boats can get into the bay. But the segments form a metal road. A vehicle could drive the entire circumference of the island and bay.
In the center of the crescent island, on the bay, are big docks. There are a few small boats, a larger passenger boat, and some sort of large shipping barge. Behind that is a warehouse-like white building with metal siding that you might expect to see at a port. On the side is written in big black letters: Elba. I see a flagpole flying a triangular black flag with a white scale of justice on it.
Everyone else on the airship is either a worker or a visitor. I know because they have clearly labeled sections for us to sit in. I’m alone in my section, and keep getting judgy glances from the sparsely populated visitor/worker section.
We land on the other side of the building in a designated area surrounded by chain link fencing.
There is a sprawling Spanish style white stucco building that was hidden by the warehouse. We enter here to go through the formalities of establishing my new life on Elba.
“So what do you do, commute in on an airship everyday?” I ask the guy who just scanned my fingerprint.
“No I live here,” he says.
“Guards live here?” I ask.
He smirks, “Most of the jobs here are done by prisoners. Yes, even some of the security procedures are inmates’ responsibilities. The warden can answer any questions you have,” he nods towards the guy who just entered the room, carrying a tablet.
The warden is certainly not the hardened military figure I expected. His dark blond, almost reddish hair is not close cropped, but allowed to twist and curl as it sees fit. He has sandy skin and prominent dimples. Blue eyes too, which you don’t see too often these days.
He smiles and holds out his hand for an introduction. I’m already getting a cringy camp counselor vibe.
“So this is the main compound,” he explains as he walks me out a door, and out of the secure fenced in area outside. “It’s where most the prisoners live and it houses the offices. It is also where you will find the commissary, cafeteria, and gym. You are free to come and go as you please from those and other non-secured areas. Follow me up this path and I’ll show you your neighborhood.”
As we meander along the path’s switchbacks up the hillside, the landscaping actually rivals the flora on my parents’ platform. It isn’t quite as lush or full, and I notice a few of the more expensive plants are absent. But overall, the vibe is more resort than prison.
After about five minutes of me zoning out to the warden’s babbling, the trees open up and we come out to a clearing with an amazing view looking down the hill towards the bay. There is a pavilion with an outdoor kitchen, bathrooms, and plenty of picnic tables. There’s even a fire pit with a suspended chimney to capture the smoke.
A handful of guys are hanging out at a table, and someone is doing his own thing in the kitchen area behind the counter.
“These are some of your new neighbors,” the warden smiles, sweeping the room with his hand.
The guy in the kitchen doesn’t even turn around. The guys at the table look at me but say nothing.
After a few seconds one of them manages a bored, “What’s up?”
The warden commences his blabbering something about all the pavilion rules and expectations. Another guy gets up and walks up next to the warden, looking over his shoulder at the tablet.
Something seems to spark his interest, and he reaches forward and takes the tablet out of the warden’s hand. This had some sort of force to it, yet it was entirely controlled and smooth.
“Hey!” The warden says indignantly but doesn’t actually make a move to take the device back. “Crenshaw.” he says, like a father trying to be stern.
Crenshaw, a tall husky man with a red face, is clearly not expecting any kind of response from the warden, since he doesn’t move away, or even shoulder the warden out of reach. He just starts reading.
“Oh my God, this kid’s hilarious!” Crenshaw says with a New England accent, “You know what he did? He trashed some dumb statue that belonged to Francesco, that weird fucker who owns Paradisia.”
“It wasn’t inten–” I start.
“Aw I hate that douche!” Someone at the table says.
Hey maybe I’ll be popular here.
“Hey, wait a minute. I know you! Isn’t your dad Ollie Mercury, the dealer?”
“Yeah,” uh-oh, is this attention I want?
He looks at me suspiciously. No, surprised, eyeing me with curiosity.
“Your dad could have bailed you out of this in a second.”
“Believe me, I know.”
Someone else, “You mean your dad just abandoned you to prison for, what, vandalism?”
“Prison camp,” corrects the warden, who has abandoned any attempts to get his tablet back at this point. “At least he booked you a cabin.”
“Yeah, you’re dad covered the upcharge for a cabin instead of the dormitory.”
I’m not sure how to feel about this.
The warden recruits Crenshaw, an older guy named Eric and a younger guy Brenton to show me the ropes. We’re walking up to my cabin now.
“This place wouldn’t be so bad if we had some drinks,” I say to Eric.
The warden chuckles, “Well, you know we believe our no alcohol policy helps you stay focused to get the most out of your experience here.”
“Don’t worry we have booze here kid,” Eric says. “Come over to cabin 8 when you get settled.”
“What? Eric!” the warden whines. “Come on, are you serious? You aren’t supposed to have alcohol.”
The other guys laugh. Eric speaks calmly and quietly, but with confidence. He’s probably in his sixties, with mostly gray hair, trimmed beard and mustache. His eyes are almost bored, or knowing.
“You guys are lucky it’s me in charge here!” The warden retorts in typical camp counselor style.
We’re walking uphill, and have left most of the tree cover behind. Now there are switchback gravel paths, with scattered cabins here and there. Around each cottage are a few trees, and other shrubs.
We stop outside cabin 12, which has a low stone wall surrounding the front yard. When I turn around, I realize the view is amazing.
The warden sees me looking off to the horizon.
“Faces southeast, so you’ll wake up when the sun rises,” he says with pep. “Best way to have a productive day. Here is your key, and I’ll leave you in the capable hands of these fine gentlemen. Come by my office tomorrow morning at 0900 for orientation.”
Then the warden is off, walking back down the paths.
And suddenly I realize I am on my own, with three convicts, who are all staring at me expectantly.
“Um,” I say.
Crenshaw takes the key from my hand and lets himself in. The other two follow. Hesitating, I trail behind them into my new home.
It’s a cozy studio style cottage, half built into Elba’s manmade hillside. There is a sleeping loft above the small kitchen and bathroom, which take up half the cottage. The southern half is a living area full of huge windows, including glass doors which lead out to the deck.
It’s pretty sparsely furnished. There is a bed up on the loft, and all the kitchen appliances. A couch, a coffee table, and that’s about it. It can’t compare to my accommodations on Gulf Sails, but it’s no prison cell.
“Are we allowed to decorate?” I ask, thinking this won’t be so bad after all.
“Of course!” Brenton says. “You can buy most of what you need at the commissary, or have it shipped here. But it usually takes a few days to come in, and they search it.”
Brenton stares a lot, and he strikes me as a little dim-witted, but he seems nice enough.
“It’s all filtered rainwater,” Crenshaw calls from the kitchen, helping himself to a glass of water, “and runs off wave power.”
I catch eyes with Eric from across the room.
“Listen, why don’t we let you get situated,” he says. “Remember, cabin 8, open invitation.”
He ushers the other two out. I must have been giving off an even more uncomfortable vibe than I realized.
“Nice to meet you, I’ll see you later,” Crenshaw says, and Brenton nods in agreement.
They all leave, and I’m alone. I reach for my portable, and remember I don’t have it anymore. There are no screens at all in the cabin… I have to purchase any technology I need from the prison. But I guess that will happen tomorrow after my meeting with the warden.
When was the last time I was more than a few feet from a screen? What do I actually do with myself?
Pace. Stand. Stare.
Okay I think I can get into the peace and tranquility with this view from the back porch.
But all I hear is me breathing. And some birds. Did they import those? Did they fly here themselves? It’s hundreds of miles to any natural land. How far can birds fly over water? It’s probably different for different birds. What kind of birds are those anyway?
Stand. Sigh. Clap.
Okay let’s go find that beer.
“Well that didn’t take long,” Eric says when I arrive at his cabin five minutes later. It’s just him, the other guys must have gone back to their cabins.
“Yeah I realized I have nothing to occupy me until I make it to the commissary to pick up some electronics tomorrow.”
Eric gives a little laugh. “Well, I’m not much for electronic entertainment to tell the truth. I’m a little old fashioned. But I do have all the classic board games.”
His chess set is front and center on his kitchen table.
“Wow, these are amazing,” I say, picking up the hand carved wooden King. “To be honest I’ve never played a physical board game… only the on-screen and augmented reality versions.”
“I carved these myself. Anyway let’s get you a drink,” he says, gesturing to his bar.
“So you didn’t like… brew this in your toilet did you?” I ask, half joking.
“For fuck’s sake this isn’t the twentieth century.”
He pours us each a beer from the tap behind his bar.
“So, this place seems pretty chill so far. Am I missing something?” I ask, sipping.
“No, not really. It is pretty chill,” Eric says.
“Okay… but there must be some catch… I mean this is punishment, right?”
“No. Not really. The point is to pay back whoever you wronged. It’s the camp’s incentive to get you to do that. That way, victims choose Elba to collect their damages. It’s your incentive to do it as quickly as possible to get back to your life. So your interests are aligned… The camp wants to empower you to be all you can be, so that they keep up their reputation for getting us to pay back our debt-”
“To society,” I interject.
“No,” Eric scoffs. “To whoever we wronged. Did you fuck up society’s statue?”
Seems like Eric has had a lot of time to understand just how this place operates. I wonder what he’s in for?
He grabs two bottled beers from the fridge this time and tosses me an opener to do the honors.
“Okay. But doesn’t the prison also have an incentive to keep you here longer, so that you keep paying them rent?” I ask.
“They don’t make that much money on rent. The biggest chunk comes from a percentage of the victim’s settlement. The quicker they get you to pay it off, the quicker the prison gets their money. And anyway trying to keep someone here would open them up to lawsuits and personal liability for whoever made that decision. Just not worth it.”
“What percentage does Elba get?”
“Depends, usually around 30-50%,” Eric explains.
“But that doesn’t seem worth it for the victim. Francesco isn’t even going to get enough from the settlement to replace the statue.”
“Crime insurance pays the prison, assuming the victim has some. Of course for someone like Francesco it’s all the same, he owns Paradisia’s crime insurance company too. But insurance pay less if you’re a repeat offender.
“So say you get off here, and keep up your statue rampage. Next time around, the insurance companies are going to wonder why Elba didn’t rehabilitate you the first time, and why you’re costing them more money.”
I have never really thought about how prisons worked. I’ve never really had to deal with the justice system before. My family gets all the basic insurance from Gulf Sails.
It all seems so complicated to me, it makes my head spin. Wish I had looked into defense insurance before all this happened…
Eric and I play a game of chess. It’s amazing how different it feels off screen– the weight and texture of the wooden knight, and hearing the tap against the board as I take a bishop.
Unfortunately, that left my king open, and Eric checkmates me with his rook.
He pours me another beer. I reach for it.
“Woah, not so fast,” he says. “It’s about time we agree on the terms.”
“Terms?” I thought I was just having a drink.
“Well yeah, I’m not just handing out free booze!”
“So what do you want me to…”
Shit. Shit. Shit.
“I’m just saying I’m not your daddy… you want something from me, I need to get something from you. That’s how the world works.”
“I, uh, just don’t think I could give you whatever you’re looking for…”
“Of course you could. A young, fit guy like yourself… I mean you’re not the most muscular but you’re clearly physically fit,” he says.
“Yeah, but no. I can’t,” I thought this sort of thing only happened in century old movies.
“Well you gotta do something to earn your keep. Sure, you’ll work online for your money, but we have a nice little internal economy on the island too… less formal.”
“Look, I just don’t need beer bad enough to exchange it for sexual favors.”
After a brief moment of shock, Eric closes his eyes and laughs silently for a few seconds.
“You’ve seen too many old movies kid. No, I’ve got a constant supply of beer, wine, whiskey–you name it–going. I need help with the heavy lifting. And when I’m not moving around big vats of alcohol, I have compost to turn, and garden beds to repair. Just come by for an hour whenever you get thirsty. That’s good for a couple drinks.”
I let out a sigh of relief.
“You’re not my type anyway,” Eric jokes.
“I really thought you were gay there for a minute.”
Once again, I immediately regret opening my mouth, because the tension is palpable. Thick seconds pass before he turns to me.
“I am gay.” He says. “I’m just not a rapist.”
“I–I’m sorry.” I say, shaking my head, “I had a bad experience recently with–”
I really need to just stop talking.
“It’s okay,” he says. “And I was just giving you a hard time anyway. I don’t mind sharing a little with the new guy. Tonight’s beers are on the house.”
“So none of–er–that type of stuff happens here?”
“No! I mean nothing forced. Of course there’s a few guys who shack up with each other, but that’s their choice.”
“Sorry if I’m a little jumpy but I just don’t know what any of you guys have done to get here.”
“This is about as mild a prison as you can get. It’s not like anyone here killed anyone.” He glances away and clears his throat, “Well, no one is here for a serious crime.”
“What was that?”
“Kinda sounds like someone here killed someone… but it wasn’t serious?”
“I don’t have time to get into a long ethical debate.”
“Okay… Well is it rude of me to ask how long you have left here?”
“I can leave anytime I want.”
“What?! You mean you choose to stay here, even though your sentence is up, or you paid back your debt or whatever?”
“I mean, this place is nicer than I expected, but still… why? You are cut off from the world, you have to wait days for packages, your internet is censored– couldn’t you get more for your money somewhere else?”
He smiles and sighs. Looks like he is deciding how to explain something complicated to a kid.
“Rodigio, before I came here, I was homeless. I was addicted to heroin. I couldn’t afford rehab, and I had been too much of an asshole to everyone who cared about me to get any help from them.
“These days Elba will take homeless people. But back then, you had to commit a crime to get in here. So I stole a car in The Kingdom–an empty one obviously, I wasn’t trying to get shot–and drove it to Miami. Freedom like I’ve never felt before. By the time withdrawal set in, I was behind bars and my fate was sealed, just as I planned.
“I knew if they got the car back, my sentence would be minimal, so before I got arrested, I drove it right off a pier, jumping out into the water as I crashed it. Took me five years on this island to pay it off. It was a nice car. By then I proved that I could pay my rent, so they let me stay.”
“Don’t you get lonely? Don’t you ever want to build a life with someone?” I ask.
“Ah they come and go, just like the real world out there. Except you know what,” He laughs, considering it, “The best–and longest–relationship I ever had was on this island.”
He sighs smiling, looking off into the surf wistfully.
“Did it end because he left Elba?” I ask.
His smile fades. Eric sighs and looks at his watch–the old mechanical kind–then back to me.
“Time to leave.”
So I make my way “home” in the dark.