I Am Ahab

Writing from Prison

by Todd Newmiller


Originally published in Newspeak, December 2007

Thursday, November 29, 2007


How much caffeine does it take to chase away apathy? Let’s hope less than the 15,000 mg dose of lethality alleviates my lethargy. There’s a lot to passionate about. Sometimes too much.


[X] shouldn’t be here. Admittedly intoxicated and behind the wheel, he was involved in an accident violent enough to crack most of his teeth, a crash that claimed the life his friend in the passenger seat.


And so he sits in prison, leaving his wife to care for their child and manage the household by herself. He figures, even if they don’t parole him, he’s got a little over a year left to his MRD (maximum release date). But then he leaves with a felony for vehicular manslaughter on his record, and what kind of work can he hope to get?

He was diagnosed with cancer while sitting here in prison, transferred to Territorial for surgery and radiation therapy. When he returned he had probably lost 30 or 40 pounds, was pale and almost frail. The fact that he’s lost most of his taste buds makes it difficult to put the weight back on.


You can tell who the genuinely, deeply religious people are in prison. They’re the ones who pray before meals in the chow hall. There aren’t many of them. But [X] is one of the few, a sincere faith that I respect, even if I don’t share it.


I have no understanding of what his incarceration is supposed to be accomplishing. Certainly, his lapse of judgment resulted in a profound tragedy, but it seems to me that all our legal system has accomplished is a deepening of that tragedy.


If our laws and our government don’t reflect our aspirations toward a more civil, more humane society, if they feed vengeance rather than nurturing healing, then this is a dark time for our republic.


[X] hopes to start a business when he gets out. To provide for his family and to help fight the problem of juvenile AIDS. I sincerely wish him the best of luck.


Thursday, November 29, 2007, Still


"There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where?"


-The Rig Veda


Sitting in drafting class one morning, a gentleman I know walked up to me, started telling me his problems. For whatever reason, this is an experience that happens to me with some regularity. I feel it’s important to let people vocalize these things, and so I sat, tried to listen attentively, and offer my empathy.


After listening to our (mostly one-sided) conversation, the transgender person who sits to my right in class offered something about being able to see me in a priest’s frock, with my patience and equanimity. I suggested something about the unlikelihood of this scenario. I believe my words were, "Oh, I don’t think so."


Later that evening, one of the guys in the pod asked if he could buy a Ramen from me for a stamp. Of course, I just gave him the one Ramen I had (I don’t even really like the damn thins). I asked him how he was doing – it sounded like he was struggling. Then he asked if I ever went to church or Bible study; I responded in the negative.

And then he surprised me. He asked me, "Do you believe in God?" I paused before I responded. I think if someone is asking you this question, they very likely have an expectation that your answer will be yes. I am not an evangelical atheist – I have only what years of serious interest and a lifetime of watching hypocrisy have given me; a serious dose of skepticism. "No, I don’t," I said. I tried to sound apologetic.

"Well," he said, "if you ever want to talk, or to pray, let me know."


Thursday, November 29, 2007, Later


"Let me have men about me that are fat, Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look: He thinks to much: such men are dangerous."


-Shakespeare, Julius Caeser


Sitting in the chow hall one evening, [X] was talking about a story he heard, about a man who started with a toothpick and kept trading up until he had a house. Another inmate, who looks like a heavily tattooed version of Santa Claus, responded:

"You believe that story? I guess I did something similar. I kept trading up my sentence until I ended up on death row. Then I had to trade back down to get life. I killed one person too many."