Writing from Prison
by Todd Newmiller
Originally published in Newspeak, November 2007
"… the University of Coimbra had established that the spectacle of several persons being roasted over a slow fire with full ceremonial rites is an infallible specific against earthquakes."
- Voltaire, Candide
Perhaps the greatest insight to emerge from great personal tragedy is the fact that, when cataclysm befalls us, the world goes on quite unperturbed by our suffering. The Universe isn’t exactly hostile – it’s just profoundly indifferent. This divergence between my personal suffering and loss and the indifference of the world creates the dynamic potential that fuels the corrosive cycle of anger.
I never expected the world to be fair. I only expected that the system existed to make the world more, and not less, fair. That the system cared about truth more than expediency. That my fellow citizens treasured fairness and freedom and truth as much as I do.
"The sea and the earth are unfaithful to their children: a truth, a faith, a generation of man goes – and is forgotten, and it does not matter! Except perhaps, to the few of those who believed the truth, confessed the faith - or loved the men."
- Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the Narcisuss
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
I don’t frequently break the rules here, though the bar is set so low that it’s about impossible to avoid doing so, intentionally or not. I’d speculate on the reasoning behind a penal system so structured and its efficiency, but Reason never seems to have entered into the equation.
One Friday evening, [x] and I had planned to do some cooking, or "do a spread," to use the jailhouse vernacular. Baked chicken was on the (six week repeating cycle) menu at the chow hall, so [x] proposed we bring the chicken back to the living unit to use in the spread. This is technically a violation of the rules, so it’s not something I generally do. It also happens routinely and has, so far as I can tell, no adverse effect on the functioning of the institution.
And so I scrounged up a plastic bag and set off to the chow hall when we were called, finding myself minutes later seated at a table, [x] next to me, as we embarked on this mission of insane rule-breaking. [x] first secured his take, one fluid motion of watching the guards, dropping the chicken into a plastic bag, and dropping the package into his shirt. Now it was my turn. I pulled out the plastic bag, setting it on my lap, paused to get up my nerve. I could see one guard off to my left – he wasn’t looking. I asked the table if the guard behind me was watching, and was informed that he wasn’t. I put the chicken into the plastic bag, then hesitated. I asked again if the guard behind me was watching, [x] started laughing at me. But the other guy at our table said it was clear, so I plunged forward, dropping my contraband chicken inside my shirt.
As I took a sip of soda and [x] continued to laugh, I remarked, "Hey, I never said I was any good at this." This sent my compatriot into an even greater fit of laughter, and I mused that, since the sun exposure had turned me a pinkish hue, at least the extent of my blushing was likely muted.
Now we had only to walk back to the unit without being stopped. I felt like I had a huge bulge in my shirt where the still warm chicken sat, but we walked confidently out the door. About twenty feet beyond the door, beyond the guard just inside, I said, "He must not really care. I think this thing is really obvious." Again amused by my comment (and by my blushing, no doubt) [x] erupted into laughter. "Todd," he said, "you’re so innocent."
Tuesday, November 1, 2007
All Saints Day. Robert Goulet died yesterday. This is how we mark time, in holidays and deaths. And in stories, events past that make us who we are.
One morning, a quiet morning in the pod, [x] stopped me, told me the following.
"Last night," he said, "I was watching one of the ‘Halloween’ movies on TV. So when I went to sleep, I dreamed I was going around with a knife like this," holding out his closed fist, fingers up, he indicated with his other hand a distance of maybe 12-14 inches from the pinky side of his hand, the length of the blade in his subconscious. He continued, "Going around stabbing people in the head."
"So after going around stabbing people in the head all night in my dreams, when I woke up my celly was like, ‘Yeah, we can’t have any more of that.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Fool, all night long you were laughing in your sleep.’"
"The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them."
- Walter Lippman
Our culture is largely incapable of experiencing the individual as anything more than a collection of stereotypes, the kind of reductio ad absurdum that elicits passion, even hatred, at the same time that it hides truth behind a veil of assumption and bias. Imagine every item of clothing, every expression, everything said or not said, every element of your personality, real or purported, being picked apart with an eye towards the basest interpretation of your very soul. And as a taxpayer, you’ve paid for this privilege. These are some of the myriad joys of being a criminal defendant in El Paso County, scrutinized by people who lie, or cheat on their taxes, or cheat on their spouse. With what they know about themselves, what would you expect them to do?
I’ve never been particularly interested in becoming a stereotype, never thought of myself as part of some particular niche. I still don’t. But over a long enough timeline, we all get reduced to a stereotype.
I didn’t start lifting weights here to conform to any widely held perception about those held in the prison system. I did it to try to maintain my health, to maintain my sanity. After about six months of lifting, I’m about thirty pounds heavier than when I arrived here, over 200 lbs. for the first time in my life.
Returning from the second tier one day, where I had been doing my dishes in the slop sink with some VO5 shampoo, one of the Crips in the pod was passing me. He said, "I don’t know man, looking kinda swoll." I don’t feel swoll. Most of the time, it’s hard to manage just feeling sane, which is why it’s so important for me to stay on the weights.
I guess everybody likes to see the skinny kid put on some mass, though.