Arrested Development

Arthur Carmonas 10-year sentence was overturned a year ago. Now hes got life

"I love her, but I feel like I don't need her," Arthur said. "I was on my own the past few years, but she still sees me as this little kid. Still wants to make decisions for me. But I can't be a kid. I wish I could go backward, but I can't. People say I'm still young, but I don't feel young."

Which causes problems at home, and there's another problem. The Carmonas don't really have a home. Ronnie, a paralegal, lost her job at Chapman University. Did all the time she put in getting Arthur out have something to do with it? She doesn't know. They lived at Ronnie's mother's apartment when Arthur first got out, but the place was small and cramped with their belongings boxed all around them.

"I think it was a real disappointment to Arthur," Ronnie said. "It looked too much like a cell."

Eventually, the three of them—Ronnie, Arthur and his sister Veronica—moved in with Mona, her son and daughter, and a collection of dolls she keeps on a shelf. It's comfortable, but it can get crowded when reporters, well-wishers, and the expectations of two and a half years keep barging in.

So Arthur drives. And one day, he was gone. No word, nothing. Ronnie, who had given up smoking, found the emergency pack she kept hidden and started again. She paced, smoked, cried and started to vomit. The usual mother's worries—"Was that an ambulance?"—mixed with the bitter reflux of everything that had happened to her family. She kept crying, kept throwing up and then, a day later, just like that, Arthur walked in the door.

Where the hell had he been?

Ensenada.

Why hadn't he called—didn't he get her 911 pages?

Pager doesn't work in Mexico.

Why does he do this?

"Because I can," he said and walked to his room.

Arthur Carmona went to prison three and a half years ago for a crime he didn't commit, and his family has been destroyed. It no longer exists.

Say what you will about prison—say it's brutal and Byzantine—but it does not discriminate. For whatever reason you're there, justified or not, you get the full dose; you are subject to the same codes and routines, the repair or damage—smart money's on the latter—done to your soul. Prison's like death; it just doesn't care. And it doesn't care about your family, either.

One of the first things Arthur learned in prison was to cut his ties to his family. Families bring hope. Hope is death in prison. Hope makes a man raise his head, "shows people you're weak," Arthur said.

"They told me, 'You've got to stop writing to your mom,'" Arthur said. "They said, 'This is your home now. We're your family.'"

So he stopped writing. He asked his family to stop visiting him. When they came anyway, he'd listen with a blank expression, offer nothing back. When his mother hugged him, he'd hold her only for a moment and then push her away.

On his first day back, Ronnie and Veronica took Arthur to a storage locker to pick up his stuff. They thought it would be fun, a way to get things back, but the moment the gate went up, it was obvious that what they were looking at was from another time. The high school graduation cap—the classes he took in prison were applied toward his high school credits—and Costa Mesa High School yearbook that Ronnie had bought for him didn't seem to point toward anything except what had been lost.

"That was real hard on all of us," Ronnie said. "To see everything, your whole life, boxed up."

They thought, perhaps, that Arthur's expression, inward, unresponsive, would change as the year went along, but it didn't. Finally, Veronica, who'd had to comfort Ronnie on the way back from prison visits, who felt guilty any time she thought of herself, who sat through the Costa Mesa High School graduation ceremony and asked Ronnie, "Why can't our family be happy?"—Veronica finally lashed out. "You don't even act like my brother anymore," she said. "I don't know why you bothered to come home."

Over the past year, Arthur has been looking for that answer.

He tried jumping right back into things by getting a job and chose possibly the worst job he could: selling clothes at Robinsons-May during the Christmas season. Arthur Carmona is a quiet young man, so quiet that you wonder if he's putting you on. He's big in the chest, bigger since he went to prison and has continued to work out religiously, yet he fairly whispers. This is your jeans salesman.

Though his conviction was overturned, he still told his employer that he'd been in prison—"I didn't want to seem like a liar." Still, he got the feeling they were watching him and was even more uncomfortable with the part of his job description that mandated he keep a sharp eye on potential thieves. He left that job and got another one at a cardboard-box factory. He liked that; he was allowed to do his work and keep to himself. But the energy crunch came, and the company had to cut payroll. Arthur was the last hired and the first fired.

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