Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Excerpt from a letter

Excerpt from a letter to Jim, who never quits trying to do more than hate injustice in his heart...

(Came home sick and) got a great cab driver - a philosopher from Somalia who didn't have a high opinion of the human race in general - but admitted, before I got out, that everywhere in the world, no matter how crappy it is, you will find that one person who doesn't know you and will benefit nothing from kindness but will be kind and unstintingly generous anyway. It was a nice conversation. And a nice turn in conversation. And then I came upstairs here and passed the hell out.

Today I'm home - just because I still feel a tiny bit rough around the edges (but better, overall.)
I read your description of being in Statesville during lockdown with interest - and not without a certain amount of sadness. It's been a year since I wrote Lamar - but not a day has gone by when I haven't thought of him. During our last visit, he looked at the door before I left and said, in a strangled voice, "I just want to go with you. I have to get out of here." I can't seem to forget that. Can't forget the enormous blast of feeling behind the words. Or that it is so unlikely he will ever get that wish.

I wonder sometimes if it's intentional - keeping the prisoners off-guard. On the one hand, I know that when they built the super max prisons, they adopted techniques based on those used on Japanese prisoners of war - I had papers from a conference to that effect at one point. At one point, I had in my possession, a letter written by the prison chaplain at Menard, recommending many inhumane and cruel and punitive measures. He must have been a hell of a spiritual comforter. Certainly the suddenness of change - the ripping away of "privilege" - the uncertainty, is an effective tool in keeping people constantly paranoid and mentally locked-down for self-protection. Works well on visitors, too. Who also never know when, after they've followed the rules to the letter, a CO will suddenly spring a new "rule" on them and usually there will be no room for debate.

God I hate prisons. They stink of fear and anger and lost hope and injustice. I've met a couple great human beings who were COs (correctional officers)...and had a good experience with a warden at Potossi who actually was very helpful in assisting me to choose a place to stay. But I think anyone who spends time in those places is affected adversely.

You go on - doing what you do - perhaps you get discouraged, but it never seems to stop you. Me? I can't think of being in a prison without a wave of sadness coming over me.
First visit to Lamar at Charleston, when it came time for count, the guards didn't take the guys out of the room. They were just asked to line up on one wall. The visiting room went silent - a huge reminder, just in case we'd been able to suspend disbelief and feel relatively "normal," that things were not normal. That this is what the guys went through umpteen times a day and night. We all sat - fathers, mothers, friends, wives, girlfriends, children, with our eyes averted. The CO on duty was a Native American guy with a good sense of humor (and I suspect, a little compassion) and he turned to us and said, "And visitors can line up on the other side of the room for count." It was a joke. And met by silence. Because it was too close to us. It was too close to that feeling we all had of having become prisoners for the duration of the visit - subject to the same rules, the same arbitrary changing of the rules, the same hassle to enter or leave a room, the constant possibility of being yelled at if a guard even imagined we committed some infraction - say, our chair was too close to his chair, we absentmindedly took a potato chip from his side of the table.

My Somalian cab driver told me that in Islam, they are told to act against an injustice unless it will endanger their lives. If it is life endangering to act, then to speak against an injustice. If it is not possible to speak, then to hate the injustice in your heart. The last is the worst of all the solutions, he said - but to not at least hate it is to be less than human.
I hate it in my heart. And it's no solution at all.