Writing from Prison
by Todd Newmiller
Originally published in Newspeak, June 2007
"Present Fears are less than horrible imaginings."
-William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act. I Sc. 3
Every weekend here, they play a selection of movies on tape or DVD that are broadcast over the closed circuit channel. The movies that find their way onto our sets tend to the recent release variety. Actually, my very first weekend here at AVCF, the selections included "V for Vendetta" and one of the seasons of "The Sopranos." I didn’t watch either of those, though both struck me as interesting choices for prison entertainment. Choices I fully support.
A week and a half ago, as I write this, I found myself watching a horror flick by the name of "Penny Dreadful." Aside from the title-appropriate premise (dreadful, that is) and predictably non-sequitur plot, the movie did manage some effective sections of suspense. As I lay in my darkened cell, cringing in anticipation of the next unexpected horror, my viewing punctuated by occasional shouts from my neighbor admonishing the characters for their poor choices or giving helpful advice to the survivors, I was amazed to discover the central absurdity of my experience.
I am in prison for a violent crime that I didn’t commit, surrounded by gang members and drug dealers, rapists and murderers. There is no doubt in my mind that some of the people in this community that I share have committed some pretty horrific crimes. On a day-to-day basis, this does not bother me. I can’t say whether it is a result of routine, or naivety, or a testament to my idealism, but I don’t live in fear of the violent population that surrounds me.
Apparently, the thing that does frighten me is the stereotyped "escaped mental patient" in the marginal movie on the TV. As stereotypes break down, so too does fear. To survive, to endure, we must have the courage and the insight to see past the stereotypes that would otherwise imprison us with irrational fears.
Monday April 30, 2007
"What kind of clown are you?"
"A crying on the inside kind, I guess."
Facial tattooing is an interesting element of prison subculture. One gentleman in my housing unit has a significant degree of clown-like, jugalo-style tattooing on his face. Try as I might, every time I see him, I can’t help but think of the above line delivered by Bill Murray in the Quick Change. As of yet, no sightings of Queequeg.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
"Let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness."
Justice is elusive under a legal system indifferent to truth, complicit to lies, unaffected by principle. At best – at best – our current approach to law enforcement and criminal prosecution oversees a particularly malignant form of vengeance, a blind violence that, if done by a single individual, could only be described as sociopathic.
Politically ambitious district attorneys and the deputies under their charge see you and me, and the rest of the population as fodder for their rise, wins and losses divorced from truth, or justice, or ethical behavior, fuel to their own self-exaltation.
"If we reviewed prison sentences with the same level of care that we devote to death row sentences, there would be over 28,000 non-death-row exonerations in the past 15 years."
-Samuel R. Gross, University of Michigan law professor
In the United States over 2,000 children under the age of 18 are serving life sentences in prison. The total number for the rest of the world is 12. How can this be? The American system of justice is anachronistic and barbaric, characterized by equal parts incompetence, malice, and indifference.
"I felt as if I were tumbling down into it – dropping endlessly down through a soundless void. He let me fall, down and down toward a black sun and spiders, though he knew I was beginning to die. Nothing could have been more disinterested: serpent to the core."
-John Gardner, Grendel
To sit in an American criminal court is to partake in a massive and plodding bureaucracy so vast that it possesses the singular ability to blot out all reason while it simultaneously destroys everything in its path. Combine this kind of power with the almost complete lack of accountability enjoyed by agents of the state, and the scale of the problem takes on its true proportions – which is to say a great and terrible monstrosity the repair of which is hardly possible in the context of the political opportunism and corruption that feed it.
"They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind."
- Hosea 8:7
Only by direct political action can we turn the tide against unchecked growth in executive power, against non-existent standards of evidence, against self-sustaining corruption in the public sector. If you care at all about civil liberties, if you care at all about justice, if you care at all about accountability in government, participate in this process. Tell everyone you know to participate. Show up at city council meetings and raise hell.
Trust me, freedom in America is a troubling tenuous thing. Tomorrow’s freedom very much depends on what you do today. Fight to return reason to the halls of power.
"And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city."
- Joshua 6:20
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
[Tricking rapidly towards Wednesday in the late hours of this Tuesday]
"For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal."
-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
A slight breeze, unlike the bluster that predominates here, carried the pleasant smells of cut grass and pollen, carried away the heat of the sun just enough so you could close your eyes and be in an open field, or in a park, or deep in the backcountry. I was standing at the weight pile of the north yard, a concrete slab surrounded by chainlink fence, surrounded in turn by dirt and another chain link fence, surrounded in turn by yet more dirt and another chain link fence, watched over by guard towers and motion detectors. Impossibly repeating geometries, claustrophobia-inducing and mind bending like an M.C Escher print, dominate my reality. The signposts with large numbers painted on them indicate distance from the guard tower, allow easy range compensation for shots fired along the fence line.
Still, it was a nice day to be out at the yard.
One of my workout partners, Robert, was asking one of the regulars on the weight pile about the tattoos on either side of his nose. The gentleman in question, a biker type, mostly bald, with a crown of white hair and a white beard, has two roughly triangular, slightly scalloped, symmetric figures on either side of his nose. He explained thusly:
"I was out on the road, staying in this hotel one night, and I got good and drunk. I went back to the room and I was watching some TV and there happened to be this program on the Maori tribesman of New Zealand. Well, something about the Maori must’ve stuck with me, because I had a tattoo gun with me and when I woke up the next morning I had these tattoos."
Someone remarked on the wisdom of not having a tattoo gun around when drunk, and we returned to the lifting of heavy objects. The breeze continued, slight caress of spring’s promise, surrounded by fences and guard towers and insanity, surrounded by the mountains of bureaucracy and corruption, and "people just doing their jobs" that keep me here, that keep the world safe for tyrants and villains.