Prisoners and Slaves

It says something about me, I suppose, that my preferences go to the long-timers. But my list of fantasy cellmates consists mostly of folks doing life for their crimes of conviction. I was reminded of that yet again this week when I spent some time, very little time, mind you, with a man convicted of murder. He's a former member of the Hell's Angels. The state thinks he killed a witness on orders from a superior in the biker's group.

Mike, I will call him, is in his late 40s. He has already been away for more than a decade. But he is trim, fit, and seemingly at peace in a situation most folks would find impossible. Unless he has the genes of Methuselah, he will die behind bars. And yet there is a quiet strength about the man, and an aura of modesty, that makes time spent with him almost a spiritual oasis.

After we talked through the business that brought me to his prison, I asked the following:  "How do you reconcile yourself to the situation you are in? You look fantastic and seem totally at peace with your surroundings."

He assured me he'd rather be out in the world, but that prison is really just a place in which your body sits. He placed two fingers to his temple, tapping his now salt and pepper head. "I don't let them in here," he said. He will do his bid; his bid will not do him. My thoughts turned immediately to Epictetus, a slave, but free in ways most of us never are. We become slaves to status, possessions and appearances; prisoners are stripped of many of the easy opportunities to fritter away their lives.

Perhaps it is easier to face prison when one knows he will never leave its confines; readjustment is the hardest part both of becoming incarcerated and being released from prison.

Heidegger wrote from a cottage deep in the woods, but Being and Time could as easily, perhaps more easily, be written in a cell. How many are the lawyers who have sidled up to me in a courtroom and complained of all the time wasted in our profession. Never come to court without something to read, I tell them. Take your revenge on the time that wastes us. A prison cell is the incarnation of a stark philosophic truth about unsparing time; it wastes us all.

Mike's calm stood in contrast to the scene I confronted at a different prison earlier in the day. A person wanted to see me about new charges. He'd just been arrested. His life was in turmoil: One day a man with a home, a job and the press of many demands. The next day, a federal inmate, facing decades of time in a box. I checked into the prison and sat waiting in the visiting area. I dozed for a while as I waited. When I awoke, a guard came by to apologize for the long delay. "No worries," I said. "I need my beauty sleep."

But when I'd slept enough for seven beauties I made further inquiries. I learned the man I had come to visit had gouged his wrists the night before. Prison officials weren't sure they'd let me see him. That, of course, was not an answer I was prepared to accept. I asked for permission to see him in the infirmary. Denied. I fussed that the man had a right to legal visits; a right to know that in his darkest hour there was someone in the world who cared enough to come to his side no matter where he was. I mused aloud that I might not leave unless until I saw him, wondering whether they'd prepare a cell for me. An hour later I saw the man. He lacked Mike's calm; he was just learning about how time can waste a man one day at a time.

I spend a lot of time talking to clients about prison. I've litigated claims about prisoners, taking one case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. I've spent so much time looking at this institutional beast that I now feel the beast looking into me. When I consider all the men and women I have met who are serving life or facing death behind bars I find myself ranking them in terms of their spiritual strength. Some of the strongest men I know are looking at life through eyes that see beyond despair, and despair is, in my view, the deadliest sin of all.

Don't get me wrong: I want to live a full and complete life without time of my own spent behind a prison wall. But that doesn't mean I cannot admire some of the men I have met there; men who may be prisoners but are no longer slaves. Mike is a giant.

Comments: (3)

  • Unlike you, Norm, I am usually too embarrassed to ...
    Unlike you, Norm, I am usually too embarrassed to admit thoughts like these. So thank you. I've often envied the apparent time for reflection on themselves and life that some of my long-timers have and been impressed by what they've come up with. I often wonder if I'd be so profound if left to my own thoughts for several hours a day.
    Posted on August 8, 2010 at 2:55 am by Lee Stonum
  • "The House of the Dead," a redemptory novel, might...
    "The House of the Dead," a redemptory novel, might make good reading for number one. Of course, he would have to exchange Heaven for Hell, and it might be too dear a price for him.
    Posted on August 8, 2010 at 4:23 am by Don Pesci
  • In Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why aut...
    In Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why author Laurence Gonzales says that one of the keys to survival in the wilderness is to accept the situation. For example, if you get lost in the woods, you can't keep thinking that you're going to get out any minute. People can thrash around for days looking for a way out and then die because they didn't take care of themselves. When you get lost in the woods, you have to start thinking that you live in the woods now. This sounds a lot like the difference you describe between new prisoners and long timers.
    Posted on August 8, 2010 at 8:11 am by Windypundit

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