I woke up in prison this morning and surveyed my surroundings. I wondered, really, whether I could get used to the place. But I wasn't in the general population. I was in a small cinderblock room with one wall made mostly of plexiglass. It was quiet and clean. For the ten minutes or so that I napped no one disturbed me. "I could get used to this," I thought.
Then reality walked in.
I'd fallen asleep in a professional visiting room at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut. A youngish sort of man wants me to try to get him some relief. He's been sentenced to the better part of forever for a double homicide he committed when he was fifteen.
The prison was quiet today. The place is quarantined just now. A wave of chicken pox is sweeping through the population. There are no visits from family and friends. Lawyers can get in, but you are warned about the pox. I've already had mine, so the visit came at little risk. Besides, I owed the man a visit now for several weeks.
The prison's visitors' parking lot was almost empty when I pulled in, lending a surreal tone to a place that already seems several steps removed from reality. The dark facade of the structure has a 1950s feel to it worthy of a Stephen King novel. Scrub away the grime all you like, but the scent and feel of despair is everywhere. "The Rock," is written on the entrance steps. I wonder how many men's hopes have been broken on this rock.
It takes a long time for the guards to retrieve the man I am there to see from his cell block. I have time to think as I wait. I've met a lot of murderers in this prison. Yet somehow their crimes seemed less real to me than the men with whom I shared a laugh and sorrows. I will never get useed to how long sentences are for almost every crime in the United States. We mete out decades as though they were years. Does anyone really believe prison is anything other than a holding pen?
My new client walks in. He presents me with documentary evidence of all he has done and accomplished while incarcerated for the past twenty years. There is a quiet dignity to the man that draws my respect. He knows the likelihood of success is low in efforts to have his sentence reduced. Two family members lie dead because of him; it is unlikely the survivors will forgive or understand that at the time of the murders he was a 15 and troubled.
As I left, I marvelled at the strength of character the prisoner possesses. He has not given up hope. Within the confines of a sterile box a human spirit has grown, even flourished. Long ago he lost so much but still in the many years that have past he has built a life for himself, one small step at a time. Here is a man for whom the time spent in prison has not been wasted. Here is a soul rehabilitated. I wonder whether I can get anyone to listen to all this man has done to redeem himself.
I am a criminal defense lawyer, and I am reborn with every new struggle. This case will be difficult, but the quiet dignity of the man I now represent moves me to silent awe in the face of the power of hope to defeat despair. I needed to see this client today. I just didn't know it.