From the Prison Journal of jsg
We were well into our conversation when death row came up, but I was fascinated by the subject 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 have a calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I can read through their eyes.
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 is now governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and the frequency approximates one person 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 happen with more frequency than under the last two governors, 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.
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 stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It usually doesn’t. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this institution 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 and 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’s his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it’s 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 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 said, in prison you live in a reduced world, it’s a small space and you come into it sit and listen to someone who gives 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 got 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 own 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. We are all seduced by our own stories.
Now – 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 this 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.
One day next day I am writing on a third day 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? Ask him what sustains him. I bet he’ll tell you. I think I know but I’ll ask. Maybe I should call this piece: All that sustains is unseen.