In the prison library there was a small bookshelf set off to the side. It was right next to the librarian’s desk and was about the same height. It had roughly eighty books on it. This was the prison’s collection of classics. The library itself was considered to be “one of the best on State”, but it too was only about the size of my current living room. Prisons don’t specialize in libraries, though they probably should.
I had consigned myself to working my way through the classics. I had the time, and I really wanted to be able to answer a personal question: What makes a classic…a classic?
A couple of years ago an old friend that I had been locked up with came to see me, Henry. It was an awkward, old war buddy, visit as I showed him around our house and tried to describe my new life. Kara had taken our daughter, Story, to go pick up a pizza for dinner. Henry and I sat on a small hill together in the yard grasping for things to say.
Finally I asked, “Hey, so I know this is a weird question, but, do you ever miss it?”
“Miss what? Prison?”
“Yeah. I mean…not prison itself. Of course not. But do you ever miss anything about prison?” I challenged.
Henry coughed up an adamant, “No way!” with nothing further to say. It lay awkwardly dying, squirming painfully in the grass at his feet. We both looked down at it silently.
Finally he offered, “You?”
I hated prison. Lots of people said they hated prison, but when we were there I’d often look around and see that they really seemed to enjoy it, it was a kind of relief. It was a culture and like any culture, some people seemed to excel at it. I loathed it. I despised what it said about us as humans. I abhorred the mistreatment. It had been visceral and constant for me. I cursed its construct. I remember one time walking down a long dark corridor at Central Prison, “CP”, or as we called it “The Wall” during processing, right after I was first given my time. It had been raining outside, not that we were allowed outside, but there were small pools of water occasionally on the floor and concrete windowsills from the leaks. I noted a small team of black ants that had taken refuge from the rain in one of the cracks in the wall and I remember my heart leaping with joy that this building would not, could not, exist forever. Eventually Time would tear this old building down too, and it would use rain and ants to do it with.
I confronted myself with the question. Was there anything that I could find to miss about prison?
“I miss being able to read all the time,” I answered.
Books were my sanctuary. I would often finish a book every two days. I spent endless days, weeks, and months, contentedly on my bunk in my cell discovering worlds. I read everything.
Somehow the prison library had been donated a large number of Russian themed books: biographies on Peter the Great and Mikhail Gobachev, War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, things like that. I never knew how they were there. There were also a few magazines from Russia written for Americans to try to entice Americans to go there. They seemed to be dated around the fall of the Soviet Union. Since most of the books had been donated by guys who were at one time or another locked up, I mused that someone had a plan to eventually get out of the country, but who knows.
One book that I had truly enjoyed had been A Hunters Sketches by Ivan Turgenev. He had been a hunter during a deep transition in Russian culture. Russia was being modernized by the west and was moving from a series of serfdom to more advanced states. Turgenev had written a collection of essays or “sketches” of people that he would occasion across while out wandering through the Russian wilderness. It was a place and a time so far away from me, but somehow I loved Turgenev’s consideration, his humanness.
He had made the unfamiliar familiar, approachable, and real for me. Turgenev had given me a way to step entirely out of my cell and to look at and talk to Russian farmers and peasants in the mid-19th century.
My hope in writing this blog is to do the opposite. I want to take people into the prisons. I want you to be able to wander its halls and to taste its food, to wade in the deep wells of sorrow, but also to see how others can somehow manage to find the strength and determination to laugh. I hope that you will feel my outrage at how we have come to treat the most broken of people, and more than anything I hope that you can find it in yourself to share my love and heartache for those very same people.
My greatest aim is nothing short of trying to change the world, one little story at a time. Prison made me look at a lot of my world differently. I have been able to walk those prison yards thousands of times with men who have committed the most horrible and disgusting offenses, and to see their humanness, to shed quiet tears, sometimes with them, and other times for them, and very often…both.
So, please, come take a walk around the prison yard with me. Come walk the halls with me. Sit in the dayroom and try to hear the television over the insane laughter, the slamming of dominoes onto steel tables; try to ignore the guy rapping loudly in the corner. Don’t look at the fight, taking place in the cell ten feet away from you, because if you even look you’ll alert the cops and then we’re ALL getting pepper sprayed. Come sit at the chow hall tables with me and try to eat this mess.
Late at night, long after lights out, when the block has finally settled down for the day and there is little noise left but the constant humming of whatever machines it takes to keep a prison alive, I hope you can hear…somewhere in a lonely cell…I never know who it is…someone is crying, sad, lonely. It’s the child who grew into a man, but is somehow still a child, lonely, scared, and wondering how he got here.
And that is all of us.