Life without possibility of redemption

I sat in a prison cell yesterday. And not your regular bullpen where they cram in 4 people who’re waiting to go to court. The real deal. Where our clients sleep at night (and often during the day). That of the 60 square foot variety.

There was a bed – a small bed – that was the length of the room. At the foot of the bed a metal toilet, with no cover. Just beyond that the heavy metal door, with a slit for a window. The door was maybe 3 feet wide, if that. At the head of the bed, if you were laying on your right side, you’d be about half a foot away from an ugly metal desk with holes that pretended to be drawers. This could not have been more than a foot long. The bed was flush with one wall. The desk with the opposite.

The bed looked hard, cold and dirty. And that’s it. This particular cell happened to have a window at the head of the bed. A window looking out onto nothing. Any future inhabitant of this particular cell would have it good. It was a single. Across the narrow passageway from this cell was another, identical in every respect except two: it was a double cell and there was no window. (Here’s a post I wrote a while ago about a different take on prisons in a foreign country.)

I didn’t have the courage to ask my escort to have them close the cell door for a minute, locking me in. It was nauseating and claustrophobic enough as it is. Maybe I was having a panic attack, or maybe the air in there was dead, like the spirits of the men that inhabit these cells, but I thought I was going to faint.

I willed myself to stand there, though, for a minute. To look around at the bare walls, the bare desk, the dirty toilet and imagine someone “living” there.

I even briefly closed my eyes and tried to picture myself there, day in and day out, for months, which turned into years, which turned into decades.

Would I survive? How does anyone? Would I give up and stop bathing, shaving, eating? Would I maintain my sanity or would I quickly decompensate? How long would it be before I’d want to kill myself?

Luckily, my stint in a jail cell ended rather quickly. As I stepped out and waited for my escort to guide me to the next location, I peeked into the cell across the way – the double – and it was occupied. Two men, sleeping ramrod straight (for these “beds” are as wide as the human body and no more), in a dark, dingy cell. One lifted his head as I was spying and looked at me. I looked away. I didn’t want to see his lifeless eyes.

People in cells are lucky, though. The next portion of the tour took me to the dorm-style housing. Which is nothing like any dorm you’ve ever lived in. Imagine instead the makeshift MASH hospitals, or perhaps the busiest train station in your neighborhood at rush hour, except instead of standing, people are milling about a hundred bunk beds on that tiny platform.

There is no privacy, there is no solitude, there is no being left alone. You are part of a large crowd. You are in someone’s face and they are in yours. You are a collective. Day in and day out. You share your bedroom with 125 other people.

Leaving the prison, I asked my colleague: cell or dorm? There’s no debate. Cell. I’d rather lose my sanity by myself.

Parole has got to be a sham. There’s no way that a group of 3 or 4 “regular folks” can decide whether one inmate is worthy of release over another. How can anyone better themselves in those conditions? Is there any choice but to give in to the atmosphere? The aura of despair, rejection and failure? How can we reasonably expect a person to prove to us on the outside that they’re worthy of a shot, when we give them no chance at redemption?

Parole hearings last 30-40 minutes. In that time, the board will try to determine who the person is that is sitting before them, what they’ve done to “change” and whether they’ll reoffend. It’s a crock of shit. It has to be. We spend our lifetime trying to figure out who we are and yet we ask others to perform this act and convince us of the goodness of their hearts and the errors of their ways in the time it takes for me to absent-mindedly watch the latest episode of crappy sitcom after crappy sitcom. They don’t stand a chance. Parole is a guessing game, much like poker. There’s a lot of bluster and bluffing and saying the right things and avoiding doing the wrong things.

It’s like locking a man in a room for 5 years with only a bicycle tire and asking him to manufacture the Bugatti Veyron in that time period and then punishing him when he is unable to. Why are we surprised? Why do we blame them?

How can one fault the inmate who, having served 30 years of his 40 year sentence, has done close to nothing, when it is we who have taken the tools from him. We, who have told him in no uncertain terms that his life, his potential, his talents, mean nothing, who have sucked the spirit out of him and confined him into submission, cannot then turn around and hold that man responsible for his failure to meet our arbitrary standards of rehabilitation.

Time slows down in prison. A minute seemed like an hour to me. I bet an hour seems like a year and a week like a decade. What of sentences of 5, 10 and 40 years? I can’t imagine what that must feel like. Hearing an imaginary clock tick every second of every day in your head, loud and unstoppable. Thinking about it is agonizing. Living it must be unbearable.

Why are we surprised that the lifer has given up? That he sleeps on the floor and not the bed, that he doesn’t eat or exercise or bathe or cut his hair? That he’s resigned himself to dying in prison? Because that’s what will happen. We’ve made that decision for him.

I do not believe that there is anyone who will not change, who will not repent or grow out of their childish bravado. Yet we send scores upon scores of our fellow human beings to these warehouses with no meaningful review of their development and growth for decades and decades.

Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. They cannot change because we don’t let them. Because if we did give them the tools to “better” themselves and they did, our draconian system of punishment would seem barbaric.

We cannot be wrong. We are never wrong. We are not them.

There is so much wrong with our criminal justice system: the way we treat inmates, the disparate sentencing of minorities and whites, the witchhunts of sex offenders. Yet there is nothing that you or I can change about this. And that’s a pity. Fear has won and will always win. Stereotyping still rules the day and will do so for eons to come. We are wonderful at recognizing the heterogeneity of those close to us and the homogeneity of everyone else.

Lots of people have lost faith in the goodness of the human spirit and have forgotten that man, at his core, is a fallible being. But he is not his actions; rather he is how he responds to them.

I could be snarky and say that visiting a prison cell should be required for all prosecutors and judges. Or I could be honest and say that it should be required for all defense counsel. We need to see where the people we represent live and how they live. We need to understand that they are unhappy when they come to court and we forget to see them. That our failure to do our absolute best eliminates any chance another human being has to escape these horrid conditions.

It is a sobering reminder of the consequences of our work. We must all place ourselves in our clients’ position and be aware of the awesome burden that is placed upon our shoulders. Prosecutors and judges may not care. We must.

No doubt those in jail have transgressed against our social and moral code. But we, on the outside, have abused that code and disfigured it beyond recognition. Just as those in jail may be responsible for pain and suffering and loss of human life, so are we.

25 thoughts on “Life without possibility of redemption

  1. Alice Harris

    I think prosecutors and judges should have to serve a term, anonymously, of indeterminate duration. They would not know when they would get out. No one would know who they are.
    Also, all defense lawyers and at least one juror on every trial.

  2. Jamison

    Gideon: I agree with Mirriam on her nomination of this blog entry as post of the month.

    The prison crowding in Philadelphia is so bad that they now cram three people into a two-person “dorm.” The third person, the low person on the totem pole, sleeps in what looks like a little boat with a foam mattress inside. The problem, clients say, is that whenever someone gets up during the night to urinate, the person can’t help splattering on the guy sleeping in the boat.

    The Philly jails are so crowded that I had one guy ask for a longer sentence so that he could serve the sentence in a state facility. And the guys serving sentences in state facilities on another conviction are always bummed to be brought back to Philly for their open case. Depending on the bus schedule, it usually means that they will have to spend up to two weeks in a Philly jail awaiting the court listing. Guys who get along with the cellie in the state prison are also bummed because it means they will be assigned to a new cell when they return from Philly.

    You’re right. The systems really stinks.

    1. Gideon Post author

      I did see that boat like thing and was quite surprised to learn that it was indeed a bed. That’s just inhumane. Overflow or no overflow, no one should sleep in a plastic scoop. Looks like a damn litter box.

  3. Trace Rabern

    This post should be shouted from the rooftops, and receive numerous awards.

    Each time I do a prison visit, I need to go for a long run or dance or ride half a day, just to feel the free.

    Our prison system is such a monumental waste of human energy and ability.

  4. Jasmine Jonell

    I have to say this is by far the best blog post that I have read to date. It nearly brough me to tears. I have a close family member that is sitting in jail awaiting the next court date, and a friend of the family who is serving time in prison. It hits real close to home. I was actually fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) to get a tour of the minimum, medium, and maximum correctional facilities in MN while pursuing my undergrad degree. One of my professors was the warden of Oak Park Heights. It was a very eye opening and humbling experience. I agree 100% that those of us that deal with the criminal justice system day in and day out really need to get a glimpse of what our clients are dealing with on the inside. What I find really sad to see is some individuals who have spent years in prison, when it is time to be released they don’t want to go….this is “home”. I believe some actually go out and immediatley re-offend so they can be back in jail/prison where they have a bed to sleep and three meals a day. They have forgotten how to function in the real world. That is really sad and a true travesty of the justice system.

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  6. Marty

    great job posting on a complex subject- but, you didn’t even touch on the healthcare they receive. google ‘cms prison death’ to see what private, hmo-style healthcare has brought to these people with little hope. victims of the drug war, ground up by some bullshit plea bargain, stuck in the most violent environment possible, with the worst healthcare imaginable… no chance for any good coming from this.

    makes me wonder if these healthcare companies will be contracting to take care of all of us, now that the govt wants to take care of us, too…

  7. Roger

    excellent post my friend. this is something everyone should understand happens when we send people to jail. too often we talk about how nice prisoners have it with cable tv, food, and beds. the reality is much worse than i can imagine or want to imagine. thank you for posting this. i am subscribed and look forward to more.

  8. John

    Great post. They used to make prosecutors spend a night in jail – but it was ages ago. I’ve heard former Judge Dranginis tell the story a few times…

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    I was realeased under Gideon’s law in 1961 after serving many years in Fl. State prison and Ky, st prison. It would be interesting to know how many of the thousands released at that time took advantage and became productive citizens. I am now 76 and have had a very good life.

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