Or the Wall of No
This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention getter but I found out when I visited the first time that Death Row is integrated into the rest of the prison. I was told it’s the only Death Row in America that is not segregated, so to speak.
You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the language I was so surprised. Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.
He refused a visit? Why?
I don’t know. Just now.
Maybe it was his lawyer.
There was a guy I walked in with who was a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling filebox full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than I am) but he told me he can bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose a way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer. So it goes.
How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.
About twenty eight, I think. Lately they’ve been going down about one a month [this piece was first written in 2015].
We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Everything is all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.
No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I can read through their eyes. I knew from his letters that he describes his prison life well.
Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.
The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and until 2015 it did seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this is deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.
I could see that executions happened with more frequency with the previous governor than under the prior two governors before him, but more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.
Last year however, 2016, there was only one execution in Missouri, most of the individuals awaiting execution now have pending appeals.
I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.
He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he is working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he is looking to for the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.
The details are rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.
On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of no so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into small obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? Not sure. What sustains?
I was telling someone I know who has been in prison and he framed my experience for me. He said, in prison you live in a reduced world, it’s a small space. Then you came into it, sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.
The next night I went to a meeting and there was a speaker who told a difficult story without any details. Everyone in the room understood where this guy was going but there were no hooks in his story, there wasn’t a place to hang sentimentality onto so at first the tale rolled out raw and abrupt and unapproachable. It wasn’t a story. It was something else, like an algebra of truth-telling. It was not a familiar approach.
It was a confrontation without the expectation of entertainment. This was no TED talk. It was raw, without details, no entertainment value. It was not rehearsed. It was delivered in a room with about thirty people and everyone was uncomfortable at first because it felt as if the speaker was looking into your eyes and saying: listen to this, I hope you get it because it’s as real as I can be but I will not carry you. You know what I’m talking about you’ve been there you recognize what I’m saying and if you don’t – so what? It’s not about me it’s not about you it’s about these set of ideas I’m am plucking out of the space over our heads where we meet if we rise to it.
I get up in the morning in prayer, he said, I have breakfast in prayer. I go to work I prayer. I spend the day working in prayer. I go home in prayer. That’s my day, every day.
It was a challenge listening to him at first. I rose to it. So did the people on either side of me. I was talking about it later and someone said to me, yeah we’re all looking for a new voice. We love the crap coming out of our mouths. You were intrigued by that — we all are — and you advanced along the full of sh** scale because this guy broke all the rules and it worked for you.
I didn’t expect to write about this evening’s event in proximity to the prison visit the day before, didn’t connect them not even in time — so much happened that day and the day before since I had been to the prison house — but here I am with my hands my heart and my head following with the story of this guy in the prison house where he derives his resolve to push on and another guy speaking a story without details no entertainment value unless the truth as it is plucked out of the air is kicks for you, for me there is no relation outside of time. Or so I thought before I started writing.
The next day I am writing and the glue is there: it’s true it’s uncomfortable it’s hard as hell. It’s life inside and out. I was telling a friend of mine about it. That guy in the jail house? My friend said, ask him what sustains him. I bet he’ll tell you.
I think I know but I’ll ask.
I did ask. Not when I was sitting with him, the next time I visited there was a power outage and I had to leave mid-conversation. It was frustrating but not for the usual reasons. In prison I have learned there are no usual reasons. It was frustrating not because the power went out — I was told this happens frequently (the emergency generator kicked on) — it was frustrating because I was about to ask what sustains you with so much no and I didn’t get the chance. So I later scribbled out a note and I asked him. I stuck the note in the mail.
Three weeks later I got a letter back. His handwriting, script, is meticulous, small and precise. At first it looks likes a form of micro-orthography, but it’s just a fastidious handwriting style. His language is similar. There is no economy to the language he writes in, but I’m not teaching him writing so I haven’t mentioned that.
Almost all the guys I teach in prison are hesitant to write at all. They are reluctant to commit anything to paper. Several times when I have brought it up they told me why. Prison is an extreme environment and it manifests in no-trust, so they do not like to leave a written trail.
On the other hand, they love to be written about. They feel as if they are the forgotten people. They encourage me to write their stories. When a journalist offered to accompany me inside, I checked with them first and they were unanimously enthusiastic. They even wanted pictures. There are no pictures in prison but they got permission.
In his letter back to me, in answer to my question about what sustains was a long and intricate narrative about himself and some of the others he is incarcerated with, but he did answer my question and basically it was simple. I stay in the day. I try to keep it here, in front of me, I try not to drift too far away and over-think the moment. Now is everything inside here, and to keep my sanity I try to live in the present. That was his response, it took him some pages coming there, but that is where he arrived.
It’s not a different response that I hear from almost everyone I know living in extreme conditions and/or high states of consciousness. It’s the perennial wisdom, a necessary adjustment reaction: I have today, I make it count.