Prisoner 567198 stepped out of his cell on the first day of his incarceration. He saw all of the prisoners heading for the back of the common area to stand in front of the big screen TV hanging from the ceiling. Curious, he joined the hubbub. He wound up in the back of the crowd as a gameshow started. All around him the other prisoners were taking bets. He sidled up to one of the other prisoners to see what was going on.
“Hey” he said.
“Hey yourself” came the reply. “Oh, I remember you. You cost me a pack of smokes. I’m Rick.” Rick was 5’10”, average weight and blond, with a square head that didn’t quite match his gaunt look, a product of being underfed.
“Steve” said prisoner 567198. He was 5’9”, with black hair and a slimmer build, with deep set blue eyes and a rounded chin. “What do you mean I cost you some smokes?”
“Well new guy”, said Rick, “I made a bet on you and lost. Get it?”
“You see these guys placing bets? I bet on you to get Freedom and lost.” Then he turned his attention back to the TV. The other prisoners were getting louder, desperately trying to get their wagers in.
“So we both lost”, said Steve. “No harm no foul, right?”
“Heh heh”, replied Rick. “There’s no winning this game.”
“What do you mean?”
“Shut up and watch”, said Rick agitatedly. Seeing Rick’s attention taken by the screen, Steve turned to the TV and watched.
A crescendo of game show music ended as the host, dressed in a cheap suit and sporting a swirl of black hair over his squarish head and never-ending smile that showed the whitest teeth, came trotting into the execution room where three electric chairs were set up. He pulled out a mic and began his speech.
“Hi folks, and welcome to another exciting edition of…”
“Life, Death, or Freedom!” came the pre-recorded crowd response, followed by cheers and hoots.
The host waved at imaginary people, never losing his smile. “I’m Bob Mackenzie and for those of you who are new to the game, let me explain. The penal system has gotten quite overcrowded, and the cost of maintaining them has gotten crrrraaaaazzzzyyy! Am I right?” he said to no one in particular. A response of canned hoots came from the imaginary audience as Bob nodded his head left and right. “There are so many criminals out there today everyone is given the same sentence which is what led to the overcrowding. So now we are giving convicts a chance to Win Their Freedom!” This was met with cheers from the imaginary audience. It was a real party atmosphere with the lights and the cameras.
“All they have to do is sit in the right chair! Simple enough, right? But there’s a catch! Isn’t there always?” This was followed by laughter. “One of the other chairs will give you a penalty of life in prison. And the other will execute you on the spot with Fifty Thousand Volts! How’s that for a wake up call?” This time the cheers were much louder.
“So I got life. Better than being dead I guess” said Steve.
“Just watch the show” replied Rick.
After the cheers died down Bob went on with the show. “Now introducing our first guest, here’s Jack Burns!” There was a round of applause as a door opened to the right. In walked two guards who took a position on the left, followed by a doughty man in prison grays and shackles. Where his number should have been it was just blank. He was 6’ tall with stringy black hair and an expression of no regret. He was followed by two more guards who closed and locked the door behind them.
“Ha ha, welcome to the show! Are you excited?” Jack just looked at him with a stony glare.
“Hey folks, isn’t that stare just scary?” The fake crowd went “oooh” while Bob chuckled.
“Okay, so you know how this works, right? So here’s Officer Green to remove your shackles.” One of the guards approached them with the key and began the process of taking off the shackles. “While he’s doing that, let’s remember our sponsors, The State Office of Corrections, and Burton’s Nuts. Burton’s Nuts. Your mouth will never be the same after you put his nuts in them.” This was followed by another round of applause.
Steve shook his head and crossed his arms. “I can’t believe this is legal.”
“Yeah it is”, replied Rick. “They don’t care about us. They just want to keep their pretty little lives all nice and clean and throw away anyone that doesn’t match their ‘ideal’. What are you in for?”
“Officially, vagrancy. Unofficially, I was leading a protest against the mayor.”
“Hmmm”, replied Rick. “I was pissing in a corner when they got me. Oh wait, here we go. Watch this.”
“Alrighty, are you ready?” Bob asked the inmate.
Jack stood there wringing his wrists where the shackles were. He looked hard at the host and asked him in a gruff voice, “What if I don’t choose?”
“Well if you don’t choose these guards here will shoot you on the spot.”
“I see”, Jack said as he looked around the room. “And what if I take you hostage” as he took a step closer to Bob.
“Well then the guards will shoot both of us. Now we don’t want that, right ladies and gentlemen?” Laughter erupted from the fake audience.
“Now before you make your choice, we brought in someone to help. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a round of applause to Mike Shroedinger!” Bob waved his hand to the left. The camera panned left to reveal a viewing window. The lights came on to reveal on the other side of the glass a distraught man sitting in a chair. His eyes sunk deep and dark in his head. His brown hair had matted to his scalp, and he had the look of death around him.
“Folks, Jack here invaded Mike’s home looking to steal what ever he could find. What he didn’t expect was for the family to be home. He thought they were gone on vacation. What a mix up!” The fake crowd did a round of “Oops” combined with lite laughter. “So when Jack found them at home he tied them up in the living room and went looking for stuff to steal. Too bad Mike didn’t have much, which made Jack here angry. So he pulled a gun and began shooting everyone. He started with the kids, two of them, and then the wife. When he got to Mike he didn’t count on the rage he was feeling, who through sheer willpower broke the ropes and attacked. See that bruise on Jack’s cheek?” Bob pointed it out. “Mike did that! What a guy!” The fake crowded applauded.
“Somehow Jack escaped”, Bob continued, “but he didn’t get far. Now he’s here, awaiting his fate.” He turned to Jack. “Ok, are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” Jack asked.
“We told Mike what each chair does. If you ask him real nice, maybe he’ll tell you which chair to pick. Why don’t you go over there and ask him? Can we please turn on Mike’s microphone?”
“Wait,” said Steve, “I didn’t get that option.”
“That’s cuz you did a victimless crime,” responded Rick. “This is going to be a good one, watch.”
Jack stepped to the viewing window as Mike stood up and approached it too. They were standing face to face, separated by glass. Mike raised his right hand and pointed out a chair. His voice was almost ghostly when he said, “The right one is the freedom chair.”
Jack looked behind him, then turned back with a look of skepticism. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because”, he replied, “there’s nothing I want more than to get my hands around your throat and squeeze the life out of you. You killed my children, you killed my wife. There is no amount of punishment that can make up for that. So I want you free, so that I can find you, and kill you myself.” While he was saying this his hands were on the glass, wanting, yearning to reach through and grab him.
Jack looked at him, at the murderous look in his eyes. “You think you can take me?” he said.
Mike suddenly pounded on the glass. “I will find you! I will kill you! You’re a dead man, do you hear me? You’re dead, deeeaaadd!” he screamed at him. Jack didn’t even flinch, only smiled a crooked smile.
“Ok, let’s cut his mic.” Mike continued to rant at Jack, but with his mic off you couldn’t hear him. “Ok Jack, we’re going to give you thirty seconds to think about your choices. Will it be chair number one, chair number two, or chair number three. Please start the clock.”
The common area erupted in inmates making wagers. Steve asked, “Is this what you guys do?”
“You got something better to do?” Rick answered. “We’re all going to be here for a long time. You got to find something to do while you’re here.”
“But it seems so heartless. I mean that man’s family is dead. What does he get from this?”
“Maybe he gets closure. Maybe he gets revenge. I don’t know. You bettin’ or what?”
Steve thought about it, said “Maybe next time.”
“Yeah whatever. Look, times up.”
“Ok folks”, Bob said with his never-ending smile, “time’s up. Jack, you heard Mike. He sounds like he’s coming for you. All you have to do is take a seat, but remember: one chair will electrocute you. Did Mike convince you, will the right chair set you free to face his wrath, or will you choose another? Let’s watch.”
Jack paced slowly in front of the chairs, first moving right, then moving left, then back to the right. He glanced at Mike, who kept nodding at the right chair, then suddenly sat in the middle seat. Immediately shackles moved from around the arm rests and legs, trapping him. Three domes were lowered from the ceiling, one for each chair. Jack began to get nervous as his dome sat on top of his head. He struggled, saying “What is this? What’s going on?”
“Well Jack, it looks like you made your choice, going against what Mike told you. But before we see if you made the right one, let me remind everyone about our sponsors, the State Office of Corrections, and Burton’s Nuts. Burton’s Nuts. Mmmm, so tasty and salty.” There was more applause from the fake audience.
“Alright, let’s see if he made the right choice.” Bob walked to the front and center of the room where there was a big red plastic button. “Is everybody ready?” he shouted. The fake crowd shouted “Yeah.” “Then count with me. One, two, three!” And he pushed the button.
The chair on the right buzzed and sparked. The chair on the left remained quiet. The chair which Jack sat in had a small banner behind it that rolled up with the word FREEDOM on it. Bells and whistles went off as the shackles rolled back. Jack stood, visibly shaken, but glad to have made the right choice. Music started playing and Bob went to interview Jack.
“It looks like you made the right choice, Jack. How do you feel?”
“I feel like a new man.”
“Well Jack, you’re a hard man, but you earned your freedom. There’s the door.” Behind the chairs a spotlight came on to show a door that led out. “Just walk out that door and take your freedom.
Suddenly there was a crash. Mike had grabbed his chair and threw it at the window, breaking through and letting him in.
“Looks like you’d better hurry, I think Mike still wants to get you. Goodbye Jack!”
Jack gave a short salute and ran for the door. Mike had jumped through the window, and after brushing the guards aside ran after him, shouting “Get back here! I’ll kill you!!!” They were both through the door before anyone could stop them.
Everyone in the common area started going “Shhhh!”
Steve asked what’s up. Rick said “Shhh, wait for it”. The room became very quiet.
Suddenly, from a distance, you could hear a man screaming. It gradually faded away, followed closely by another scream. Then the room erupted again, some with laughter, others looking to cash in on their wagers.
“What was that? asked Steve.
“Oh, that was Jack and Mike”, said Rick. Here’s the thing: they say you won your freedom, but what really happens is you go out that door and it leads you to the cliff behind the prison. That’s a hundred foot drop.”
“What?” exclaimed Steve. “Are you kidding me?”
“You heard them fall, what did you think that was?”
“Wait, so this means you don’t really win your freedom!”
“Well, if you can survive the fall, and the rocks, then you did. I’ve never heard of anyone surviving, but then I’ve been in here this whole time so I wouldn’t know. Now I got to go collect my winnings. Talk to you later.” And he walked off leaving Steve in a state of stunned disbelief.
“Hey folks, I’m sorry but we are going to have to take a short break while we get that window fixed. We’ve got a bus load of convicts to go through so don’t worry, the fun and excitement will continue. And remember, Burton’s Nut’s. They feel great in your mouth.”