A good friend sent me this essay, saying, “Made me so sad. For the man he killed, for the family who suffered and for this man behind bars with a great gift who could have done so much.”
The story is not for the faint-hearted and it’s not something you read everyday. It’s longer than the speed and fullness of my days normally allow. So I don’t expect you to read the prison essay all the way through. You don’t have to, to understand the thoughts that follow.
I’m not saying Blake doesn’t deserve punishment. I did always consider – even as a high schooler – LIFE in prison to be worse than death. Make it solitary and you have the worst form of torture – even apart from the animal conditions described. The glimpse of this unthinkable existence got me thinking about the basic things that make us human.
“Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement unit, however…Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones.”
Our very body proclaims that life is change. We live in constant flux, each of us a sentient network of innumerous biochemical activity, electromagnetic charges, neurotransmission – all in collaboration even to help you with the simple and sophisticated task of reading this thought. About every four months, a red blood cell expires and is displaced by a new one. A cease in modulation in a major part of our structure or the whole would mean paralysis or death. There is a coherence to the changes. The bodily vicissitudes are not random but often follow cycles. Of time, weather, season. For the person is a microcosmic embodiment of the universe. There is the planetary orbit. The revolutions. And we are governed by a circadian rhythm. Whether or not we choose to rise and set with the sun, our organ systems each heed their own clock of peak functioning in keeping with the tide of day and night. The woman’s body is a candid avatar of the Cycle.
When change propels us forward, it is one for the better – to higher consciousness and goals, a broader base of knowledge and achievement. I think of my husband who is ever pushing the frontiers of his own learning, creating the next place to get to. The next instrument to craft, the new Samba beat to teach. While setting fresh goals for his son. If we devolved, we wouldn’t live our human potential. One of the most tragic sights is the rich, talented, and beautiful executing their own ruin, squandering faculty and resources on addictions. When, on perfectly good legs, they turn and walk away from the horizon of promise. It is pitiful because this forward movement is a capacity particular to man, as history shows. Mineral, plant, animal remain their characteristic matter and energy over time. But giraffes over two thousand years ago did not learn to build fire or revamp their lifestyle by the industrial revolution. Human energy can carry a powerfully constructive, creative momentum.
Where we take pause in the movement to recalibrate, we gather meaning from where we’ve been. Solitary confinement becomes a senseless existence because the days that have passed there bear no such thing as progress. The Box is a vacuum devoid of virtually all organic markers of change, of direction. There is no purpose to breathing – only the death grip on sanity. Hope is a picture we paint of a better place we imagine for ourself, a new place to go. It provides meaning for the present and future. But there is no hope in vacuity.
We don’t draw meaning in isolation but against a communal tapestry where we locate our own thread that contributes to the greater design. Which takes us to the most salient characteristic of solitary confinement. Why is our social nature of significance?
Even if you don’t believe we bear the image of God in a way plants and animals do not, you have to listen to what our communicative capacity says about personhood. We certainly can talk to ourself, but communication is at its most meaningful when it happens in a social context, with someone who gives us audience. The fact that we can speak is its own witness that we are born into a world where we can expect others to tune into us. Now, while animals have a language, our innate need to express takes us more deeply and richly into articulation of complex structure and substance and medium. Not only speech, but also art, allow us to mark our personal identity and broad humanness. I express myself through the writing and my music. Others paint, dance. God is known as the Living Word by which He spoke all things into life. We bear this divine image in the ways we speak our verbal, visual, physical art. In the artistic procreation, we do more than transmit energy, breathe, even learn. We birth something of beauty.
Prayer is the highest plane of articulation. Throughout the ages the peoples have continued to pray. That is, to utter fear, hope, joy to a God who is invisible. The drive to communicate at the most human level impels a faith that Someone hears. And cares. What completes our humanity is a relationship with the Deity.
But still the noise was incredible, a thunderous cacophony of insanity, sleep impossible. Inmates lost in the throes of lavalike rage firing philippics at one another for even reasons they didn’t know, threatening to kill one another’s mommas, daddies, even the children, too. Nothing is sacred in SHU. It is an environment that is so grossly abnormal, so antithetical to normal human interactions, that it twists the innerds of men all around who for too long dwell there.
In a box frozen in time and consequently no hope for change, the one thing the prisoners in confinement have is the insatiable need to express themselves. The only way they can is through the pressure valve of helpless rage. One could hardly feel human there.