Writing from Prison
by Todd Newmiller
Originally published in Newspeak, November 2006
"Many great books have been written in prison."
- Hunter S. Thompson
It’s exceedingly difficult to translate my shock and disbelief, the flood of thoughts and emotions that have come to substitute my normal thought process. Even attempting to write down these few impressions is daunting. My immediate sense is that Maximum Security is an unlikely place for me to find a kindred spirit. What I mostly feel is loneliness. But underlying that loneliness is the abject boredom we all share. The TVs are on most of the day, there are card games, chess, checkers, backgammon, there’s a metal monstrosity in the middle of the common area on which you can do just about any exercise that uses your own weight, there’s a sparse selection of badly damaged fiction of the "top-selling" variety. I suppose what I really need is to figure out how to get people to tell me their stories—storytelling being my most consistent friend and savior, my solace in the face of madness.
"Hell is the absence of reason."
If that’s true, I’m about as in hell as I can be, though I should be care not to overstate my suffering. To the extent that I’m suffering now, it’s primarily the dissonance of my ideals so greatly diverging from the reality that I face. When you’re innocent and you place your faith in a system that purports to presume innocence and to provide a fair trial, it’s troubling indeed to see that system come up short.
"It was a meal that changed my life."
– Julia Child
The food here is bland beyond comparison, dry and tasteless in a way that forces you to drink a surprising amount of equally bad weak tea or grape juice so you can swallow these few and essential calories provided by the state. If boredom and bad food are effective methods of either punishment or rehabilitation, then our system should work great. For some reason, I kind of doubt the efficacy of this kind of system.
"We are eternal, all this pain is an illusion."
Mar. 20, 2006
My efforts at writing have been sorely lacking, though that’s hardly a surprise to me. If I can’t manage to write even in the face of wrongful imprisonment, then my hopes to write at all seem in need of a violent reappraisal. On the positive side of things, I’ve been able to talk to my family and [x] over the past several days. Knowing that I’ve got their support, and feeling like I can be strong for them makes a tremendous difference in my outlook.
"Fool, you know how we do it."
I have to say that getting a sense for the rhythm of things in here—the periods of lockdown, some of the personalities, the commissary system, such basic things as how to get the necessary tools to clip my nails or shave—just the essentials of functioning in this alien environment, gives me a strange sense of comfort. In my first attempt at ordering "commissary" goods, I’ve probably gone slightly overboard, but as much as anything, it’s an attempt to exercise some level of control over my environment. At this point, that’s about as close to control as I’ve got.
"One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being."
– May Sarton
At no other time have I felt more the importance of the choice of inner peace and the choice to let go of anger and frustration and to live in the moment. I hope I’m able to learn the lessons that exist for me in this situation without unlearning whatever wisdom I’ve acquired to this point. Interestingly, I mostly don’t have any sense of trepidation here; I think it’s because I know no one is trying to change my beliefs or to indoctrinate me into some other system of thought. And I also know that I’ve stayed true to myself and to my principles through a storm of tyranny and abuse of official power and betrayal. Enduring trials (both literal and figurative, in this case) is in its way empowering.
Mar 21, 2006
"The ultimate goodness is not to be afraid."
The likelihood of an extended period of incarceration is still dawning on me; it’s still quite difficult to comprehend the depths of this injustice—harder still, on the face of my conviction, to fathom the malice and willful dishonesty of police and prosecutors. As Montgomery Burns would say, "Look Smithers, it’s a creature of pure malevolence."
Mar 22, 2006
"Experts are addicts. They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured, we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us."
There’s a part of me that would like to be fiery with righteous indignation at the injustice that has befallen me, but I can’t help but think that Anthony Madrill suffered a much graver injustice. Of course, in many respects we were victimized by the same man—he just had a little help, in my case.
Partly, I’m just not able to fully process any of this madness yet. It’s almost the only thing I think about, yet I struggle to make any sense of it. Is there sense to be made of it?
"I know the pieces fit, ‘cuz I watched them fall away."
Mar 23, 2006
Disillusioned today. Yesterday’s meeting with my attorney was probably important from the standpoint of knowing what to expect, but her resignation to the forces of evil wasn’t exactly inspiring. Then I got the questionnaire fro the Pre-sentence Investigation in which I’m expected to express remorse. I feel terrible that a young man is dead and I feel nothing but sadness for the Madril family, but it’s deeply philosophically troubling that the major goal of the system (on every level) is to reinforce the mythology of its own infallibility. So I tossed and turned last night, slept through breakfast this morning. At mail call this morning I got [x]’s outline/flowchart of Action! I got notices that "they" had bounced a letter each from home and from Tracy. I really can’t afford to be sucked into a cycle of negativity. At least I have some music. I miss my family, I miss my life. Uncertainty is a cruel master.
Mar 24, 2006
"Call me Ishmael.
Today I received Moby-Dick in the mail, as well as a very nice sketchbook that [x] sent me. By virtue of having been here a little while, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a few more people, to hear a few more stories.
One gentleman, who was trying to sell me some of his meds, and who was promoting their benefits, was saying that they’d "put you right to sleep and you won’t even know you’re here. This place is a nightmare." My response was, "Yeah, it’s not good in here, but it could be worse." You know, for all the injustice that exists in the system, as wrong as it is for me to be confined here, I’ve seen the shanties of the Philippines, I’ve seen the boat people of Hong Kong; hell, I’ve seen the poverty and hopelessness in which some of the Navajos live. It seems to me that there’s something to be said for living in a nation with some sense of humane treatment one can rely even when the system fails miserably. Which is, of course, one of the things that is so disturbing about secret prisons and inhumane treatment of prisoners. That is a failure of even the most basic principles of right. Things could be much, much worse for me. But they’re not. Hurray!
Mar 26, 2006
"I am Ahab."
–Hunter S. Thompson
It’s strange the interconnections that exist amongst us all, even in as an unlikely place as maximum security at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center. It’s enough to get you to contemplate Fortune or the Hand of Fate. Today I felt like I was able to converse with interesting people, and offer assistance to a couple of people, and read some good literature, and play a few good games of chess. Things could certainly be worse. Oh, and I have the love and support of people that care more deeply than anything in the world, and who I respect to an equal degree.