Before I explain why I had to wear an ankle monitor, let me tell you about Aaron Hicks.
One Sunday in 2012, his device wouldn’t stop beeping. Hicks had pled guilty to a sexual assault in the ‘90s, and after he got out of prison, the state of Wisconsin said he had to wear a GPS-enabled tracking device for the rest of his life. It was supposed to tell his parole agent where he was.
The problem was, the thing didn’t work. It sounded false alarms at church, at school, and in bed at night. Each time the cops came, cuffed him, and took him away. Once they locked him up for nearly three months before they determined that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
I’d been reporting his story for months, and spoke with Hicks often. But when I woke up that Sunday, I’d missed six calls from him. When I called back, he told me his device had malfunctioned and the cops were knocking on his door. This time, he said, he was determined not to go to jail.
I hurried to his house, on the edge of town, and found him huddled in his room, shades drawn. The cops had left. I knew Hicks had taken steps toward building a post-prison life: enrolling in classes, working, trying to rebuild family bonds. But jail kept interrupting. His eyes told me he was breaking inside.
If an offender had problems with his device, he was supposed to call a 24-hour service line. We dialed together. Nobody answered, and the call went to voicemail, repeatedly.
Then I told him what he already knew: waiting for the police to come to him made him look guiltier than if he turned himself in. We drove to the jail together. At the door, he kissed his wife goodbye. It slammed shut behind him.
That moment became part of the story I wrote about him. Before it went to press, I called a Department of Corrections spokeswoman and read it to her for comment. She agreed with everything but the part about Hicks calling an unmanned telephone. That was impossible, she said.
I told her I had witnessed his attempts.
And she asked: “Do you think you might be letting your own experiences affect your perception here, Mario?”
And I felt a knock in my chest.
To tell this story right, I have to back up to 2010, which I mostly spent in a jail cell.
Lock-up had been a long time coming. For years, I’d been living like a cigarette burning down to its filter: wrecked cars, cocaine nose-bleeds, handcuffs, and hospital beds. I finally smoldered out when I got pinched for breaking into bars and stealing vodka.
What stands out in my memory isn’t the grinding boredom of jail, or the indignity of being subjected to regular body-cavity searches. It’s the inhumanity, the feeling that no matter what I said, nobody would listen. That voicelessness had a texture I’d never experienced.
After I did some time, the jail let me out during the day to take classes at a nearby college. A journalism course offered me a voice, and I remember walking back into jail those nights after class feeling powerful. Like when I was finally released, I wouldn’t be able to lose.
Of course, that wasn’t true. My problems were just in cold-storage. And when I did eventually get out, nobody wanted to hire this criminal. I started drinking again, like it was my job. For nine straight months, I drank around the clock, opening bars each morning and closing them at night. I didn’t stop until I was hollowed out, lying jaundiced in an inpatient detox unit, taking downers to ward off seizures.
One Wednesday in May 2011, luck, or something else, brought me into a church-house basement for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I stuck around for the next one, and the one after that. Eventually, I put some distance between me and my last drink.
I went on to grad school and landed a few internships, one with a heavy-hitting daily paper. Before offering me the gig, the editor called me into his office and said he liked my bio and my work, but he could only give me the job if I agreed not to write about criminal justice. That would give me a chance to round out my skills, he said.
The real reason went without saying. Critics will use whatever they can to discredit investigations. No reason to give them extra ammunition.
I agreed, and learned a lot about reporting that summer. But one lesson stood out: while my past, and my struggles to overcome it, make for a great underdog story, they also pose serious issues for my credibility.
It felt like a terrible irony. Journalism had offered me a voice, and with it, the thread to sew my life back together. But once I started to recover, I couldn’t write about the one topic I understood down to my bones.
I sympathized, though. A critic who rides on my shoulder is always ready to dismiss my stories about criminal justice. That voice tells me: “You’re a felon. Nobody will believe you.”
When I graduated, I sent out close to 200 resumes before editors at the Voice of San Diego told me they saw my past as an asset to their newsroom.
I’m now three years sober. I married the woman who carried me through that alcoholic wasteland. A year ago, we had a baby girl, Lucia. Sometimes, when I look at her, my eyes burn and it hurts to swallow. I couldn’t have imagined, even for a second, that this life was possible for someone like me.
I’m still on probation, the idea behind which is pretty simple: If you break the law, or violate certain rules, you go back to jail. It’s supposed to be a graduated system. Keep your nose clean, and as time goes by, you’ll have more freedom. While in grad school, I met all the conditions my probation officers set: therapy, alcohol treatment, monitored sobriety.
But moving to a new city means starting over with a new probation officer. My new PO in San Diego spoke with me for just a few moments before he said I had to wear an ankle monitor for the next three months.
In that moment, I felt – more viscerally than any amount of reporting could have taught me – how our criminal justice system unwittingly takes tools meant to help people and warps them into punishment routines. I thought of the look I had seen in Aaron Hicks’ eyes. I thought of the doubt I had heard in that Wisconsin spokesperson’s voice – the same voice the critic on my shoulder always has. And I shelved the idea of writing about any of it, because it was happening to me.
In truth, I haven’t resolved that tension. I’m not sure if I ever will. Ideally, I’ll be in a professional place where my past is simply known, and people can trust or discount my work on that basis. But they’ll know where I’m coming from.
In the meantime, those times when I start to feel like there’s no room for me in this profession, I remember something my father once told me. That when bad things happen to us – whether or not we brought them on ourselves – we can wallow, or we can look for a way to turn them into strengths. Our very mistakes can be the things that carry us.
Remembering that, I’m able to sit down and begin to write.
The story on Aaron Hicks and Wisconsin’s GPS monitoring system won a Milwaukee Press Club award and was a finalist for a 2013 Investigative Reporters and Editors award.
This piece was originally published, along with a collection of stories from other reporters, in the Ochberg Society’s June 2014 edition of “Acts of Witness.”