Writing from Prison
by Todd Newmiller
Originally published in Newspeak, April 2007
"***The facility will remain on lockdown indefinitely. The lockdown is due to the possible presence of dangerous contraband in the facility. Updates will be given as the situation changes.***"
- Crawl on the closed circuit channel at AVCF
Currently on day two of facility lockdown, which I suppose I should view as a cosmically afforded opportunity to scribble thoughts onto tablet, like runes painted on a cave wall, like the cave pictographs even more ancient than that. How many countless generations have sat in a cool, confined space very much like this one and sought to understand the inscrutable Cosmos, the seeming cruelty of Fate?
Reading the crawl on the closed circuit, two things come to mind. The first is surprise at this relatively high level of information disclosure. One of the hallmarks of this system is the information vacuum in which DOC "clients" are most often held. The unknown stalks inside these walls with virtually unchecked power, ever ready to ambush and overpower the prepared and unprepared alike. My other thought is: you mean, prior to the lockdown, there was no possibility of dangerous contraband present in the facility?
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
"It’s all ball-bearings these days."
- Chevy Chase, Fletch
Day three of facility lockdown, the crawl on closed circuit remains the same. Just caught some of "How It’s Made" on the Discovery Channel, one segment covering the production of ball-bearings. My absurdist sense of humor is not infrequently all I have to battle the insanity of this place, the insanity of this planet. That and coffee. If you ever decide to be wrongfully convicted of murder, I highly recommend the coffee maker as an item to purchase.
"The terrorists and the policeman both come from the some basket. Revolution, legality – counter-moves in the same game; forms of idleness at the bottom identical."
- Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907)
The shakedown came yesterday afternoon, on schedule and as expected. You see, in prison, contraband of all kinds is always present to varying degrees, hidden away with varying thoroughness and varying long-term success. So long as the forces of authority and control remain in blissful and nurtured ignorance to this fact, I’m allowed to fall into complacence and routine. As soon as someone is caught with contraband or violence invades the awareness of the vast machine, the shakedown follows, conducted with a methodology sure to be punitive to the entire population, and unlikely to actually track down "dangerous contraband."
The control booth first warned us to lockdown immediately when the call came. Shortly thereafter, we were ordered into the promised lockdown. The storm troopers rushed into the pod, a mass of black BDUs and tactical gear, shotguns shouldered and barking orders. They had us file out in single file, one tier at a time into the courtyard that separates the various buildings here. Guards lined most of the length of the walkway between the housing unit and the gym, our destination for the afternoon.
The massed troops along the walkway allowed them to pat down probably 20-40 of us at a time, then count us, then send us on in groups of just a few at a time to the gym. Arriving at the gym, maybe 15 of us at a time were stripped down by a pair of guards, eventually finding our way to the bleachers to wait out the afternoon, punctuated by the rigmarole of the afternoon count.
This kind of massive shakedown is no more fun for the guards than it is for the imprisoned. And the frustrations of those in authority almost invariably get translated into unnecessary exercise of authority on those in their charge. After hours of sitting on the concrete in the general din of the gym, low grade headache rewarding my attempts at patience, we were allowed back to the housing unit. On the return trip, there were an even greater number of guards lining the walkway, more than I could reasonably count, standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder over the entire hundred yards or so that separate the gym from unit 1.
We walked the gauntlet in single file, and as we reached the unit, I half expected to see it replaced by a cattle car. If you’ve ever wondered how a mass of people can be subjugated and kept completely under the control of another, this is it. Slavery and genocide and feudalism and war all look exactly like this, an application of violence to a population outnumbered and outgunned and unable to defend itself – and without appeal to any more rational or higher authority. When unchecked executive power decides that you have no rights, your only hope for remedy is civil litigation, years and world’s distant. Good luck with that.
I returned to my cell to find every possession I own piled onto my bunk, without system, with profound indifference. This is standard for a shakedown. And so, along with every other prisoner in the unit, I began cleaning up and trying to reassemble my meager possessions into some semblance of home. As I worked my way into the pile, the smell of pickle juice told me that my jar of hot chili peppers had been turned on its side, was bleeding its contents onto whatever lay beneath. What lay beneath turned out to be one of my sheets, one of my blankets and a pair of sweatpants. Frustration, anger, hopelessness beyond control filled me up. I pulled the jar out of the pile and righted it, set it down. Then I just lost it.
Not the jar – my composure. "Goddamnit!" I punched open the steel door of my cell (it wasn’t latched), and stormed out into the day room. This drew some attention from my fellow inmates, the angriest I’ve been since finding my way to prison.
As is almost always the case, talking about this frustration and having others agree that my frustration was reasonable made the problem surmountable. I hand washed my sheet, my blanket, and the pair of sweatpants, well enough to get them smelling not-so-much like pickling, and went back to the slow process of putting back together this sate that substitutes for a life.
Monday March 26, 2007
"In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenetless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets."
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Those words appear on the page of their own volition, with no apparent means of scribing, written, as they are, by a ghost. What else do we call a consciousness that continues on after it has been separated from the life that once contained it? Memories and thoughts and identity persist in this shell, but the me that once was has passed on, has been irretrievably banished from this world, has been swallowed up by the Cataclysm. I know this because I’ve heard the eulogy, I’ve read the epitaph, I’ve seen and felt the mourning of those that loved me.
I didn’t come to this realization immediately, did not recognize that life had ended, did not understand (at least not fully) that my former existence, my former identity, lay not only beyond my grasp, but beyond the gates of the Great Beyond – beyond resurrection. Even if I can escape this purgatory, this dungeon of ceaseless boredom infinitely distant from the sacred, where would I go?
I suppose I would return to where the trappings of my former life can be found, to haunt the buildings and the grounds where my life was taken, to pursue those who watched indifferently as I was robbed of life, or those openly malicious to my existence.
To ask why they were professionally negligent, or morally indifferent, or blindly vengeful. And to ask, "Where am I to go now?"
I don’t know how to reconcile the utter destruction of former life with the fact that the blood still pulses through my veins. I don’t know what I should do with this shell that contains a still vibrant but utterly lost consciousness. If, as Louis Brandeis wrote, "Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher, for good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example," then I suppose I should seek vengeance by any means necessary, without concern for principle, with indifference to the truth, without regard for the suffering of the innocent, with a reptilian malice unbounded by reason or compassion.
But even the imprisoned ghost of former self, the shadow whose thoughts appear on this page, refuses to sink to the same depths of deception and amorality that have been modeled with such unflinching resolve. And so I futilely whisper – "Why?"