I’ve been riding the subway lately in the morning rush hour. I get on the A at 190th Street; by 181st there are no more seats; by 168th there’s no room at all.
I hear drumbeats coming out of the woman next to me — she’s wearing a Walkman. A man holds the Times in front of his face like a shield. A woman with red lipstick stares at nothing. The train rocks and we try not to lean on each other. I can’t see my feet. I read the Roach Motel ads over and over.
Then the train stops between stations.
I do twenty years of prison in ten minutes. I am in a grey cell with a toilet. It’s a kind of blindness, having one thing to see. The boredom becomes a physical pressure. My mind backs up like a water main. Soon it will explode.
I feel fear in the soles of my feet.
New York, New York
We’re all in prisons. I’m surprised more of you don’t admit that. Some are minimal-security prisons, to be sure, but prisons nonetheless. Which of you has X-ray vision? You’re a prisoner in the visible spectrum. Which of you can divide and be in two places at the same time? We’re prisoners of space and time. Which of you can speak fluently every language in the world? We’re prisoners of culture and inheritance.
Which of you can buy whatever you want whenever you want? We’re prisoners of a certain economic status, and even if it’s “upper” it’s still got its limits. We can each only do so many things in a day, greet so many people, write so many words, breathe so many breaths, and think so many thoughts.
And we’re all prisoners of death. Which of you has a plan to outsmart the grave? One of the main differences of each of us, prisoners that we are each in our own unique prisons, is how we relate to our prison. What is our attitude? Have we adjusted and are we attempting to live contentedly or are we making our prison more dismal and stinky by fretting, complaining, coveting, desiring, and murmuring for what we do not have?
There are many liberation philosophies today. Liberators are supposed to open the prison doors and let the prisoners go free. Have they? You know they haven’t.
Except certain Christians. There are a lot of uptight ones, to be sure. A lot of rightist Pharisees, to be sure. But there are those who know that Jesus did defeat the grave on that first Easter Sunday. He did come back to life. He did break down the prison door of the Grim Reaper. They know that He is a Redeemer, One who has brought them back from death. They know that living for this age, and its prisons of death, hate, and mistrust is but for a moment but that living for the Age to Come with its promise of true peace, freedom, and dignity is eternal. Yes, you can be set free from your prison here if you’ll live with a view to your mansion there. You can know the truth and the truth will set you free. Go for it. Engineer a prison break and seek the Lord while He may be found.
Glen Ellyn, Illinois
As one achieves economic status in this society, the triviality of most laws becomes evident and a given law assumes its true proportion in terms of its silliness. A prominent doctor who was arrested for shoplifting found the whole affair silly and paid the $500 bond percentage and a small fine in court later on. Yet an unemployed man who stole $2.38 spent literally weeks in jail because he could neither make his bond nor pay his fine. So, therefore, we see that the law is a menace to those who are poor and underprivileged, but the law is barely a hindrance for wealthy individuals. Legislators, powerful persons, and judges make the laws.
There are people who could commit a major crime, have their bond set at $100,000, easily make bond, and be out walking the streets. Let a poor black do the same crime and you will see him it in jail for months and then do time in prison because he could not afford a good attorney, and had to settle for a court-appointed public defender. Reliable statistics show that the chances are two-thirds greater that you will be found guilty if you have a public defender. Laws and police are made to preserve the existing order.
The biggest delusion which the public as a whole has fallen for is the idea that laws are there to protect citizens and that the police are defenders of the populace. That is the most ridiculous concept prevalent today. In reality, the laws are not determined by the opinions or desires of an ordinary citizen. The people who determine what constitutes lawbreaking are the people who make the laws for their own benefit. Well-meaning demagogues and good-intentioned Fascists form a tiny little box for all to live in. The least bit of dissent lands one in an even tinier box with bars on it.
Jeffrey Richard Varnado
During the Vietnam war, I, a draftee who felt like a prisoner myself, was assigned guard duty at a military prison. I was curious about the doubly imprisoned men I guarded. Their only crimes were being absent without leave or desertion, and at first I thought of them romantically — rebels whose free spirits could not stand the army’s regimentation, who had broken away only to be hunted down and jailed. As I got to know the prisoners, however, I found no such heroes. Most had left the army not out of conscious rebellion, but because they had gone somewhere and not felt like coming hack. Most had not been hunted down but had turned themselves in; others had waited at home until the army came to call or family members turned them in. In their stories of civilian life there was a pattern of exploitative human relationships, drugs, and drink. Even out of prison these men seemed prisoners, their lives out of their control.
I thought of myself, feeling trapped where I did not want to be. Like the prisoners, I was there because I had not chosen alternatives — true hiding or fleeing, various deferment scams, conscientious objection, or going to school. There was a song lyric at the time about “prisons of our own device,” but in fact, both I and those I guarded had drifted with no planning into prisons imaginary and real, prisoners of our lack of device.
They say the only prison is the one we are all in — the ego body. I have seen another, not prison itself, but the inside of a state mental hospital, where hope falls like a lead balloon into despair and the only intimacy is a spare cigarette.
Under such conditions, light-body philosophy cannot fly; it doesn’t have a prayer. There is only hell-fire and brimstone theology. “God helps those who help themselves” seems to stand a chance.
To wake from this dream is not easy, but I have done it — only to find this world, where I sit at a desk at a typewriter, more illusory than ever. Indeed, it is “the only illusion there is.”
Of all the prisons that we live in, the biggest one is lies. Sometimes those lies get us into “real” prisons, with walls and guards and physical limitations on our liberty. But our freedom is restricted, inside walls or out, by the lies that we tell ourselves.
No one can lie to anyone else without having practiced first on themselves. What is so terrible about ourselves that we have to lie about who and what we are? Why is my heart beating so fast? I haven’t even had my morning cup of caffeine yet. Why am I crying when just ten minutes ago someone on the phone asked, “How are you?” and I said, “Oh, fine!”? Why is it so devastating when someone sees through the mask? Could you ever again love that person? Could you ever love? Have you ever loved? Were all those couplings meaningful, did they stretch into the infinite as you thought, and give purpose and beauty to your life? If so, why do you ache when you think of them now?
And who did this to me? Was it my mother, my teacher, my minister, my first boyfriend, my last lover, something I read, something I ate? Was it the fear-monster who broke into my house and changed my world forever? Was it the time my garden turned black on my birthday? Maybe God did this to me. Maybe it’s true what some of them say, that after going to all the trouble of arranging this world, and creating man and woman and the process of conception and birth, that He changed His mind somewhere along the way and put a curse on every newborn for daring to come into the world. Original sin. What a charming idea. I could stay somewhat safe inside the lie that someone, something did it to me, made me this way, turned my life around — that I’m not responsible, I’m just along for the ride. And this look of injured innocence is real. Pity me, hold me, love me. Make it all better.
I long for freedom but I can’t breathe. I can’t get out of this prison I’m in. This isn’t my dream; this is God’s dream and I think he’s having a nightmare.
Oh, there are so many things I’d do if I could just get out of here. I’d write a great book of course, that’s easy. I just need some time to do it, and a nice clean place, not this grimy prison. And of course I’d give a lot to the poor and needy and I’d invent something to change the course of humanity forever. Someone would probably make me a rock star the moment I set foot outside. Of course, haha, they’d have to give me some clothes first because I’m naked in here. There are a lot of truly Great Ideas that I haven’t had time to develop because I’m so busy trying to figure out how to get out of this place that I’m in — if someone would just open this door. I’d do it myself but I’m sure it’s locked from the outside.
At least I’m not alone. There are a lot of other prisoners; I can hear them. Of course, unlike me, they’re in for real stuff. They probably deserve it. I can hear them wailing sometimes and I try to give them words of encouragement. I know it’s a lie — a white lie. I tell them everything’s fine, they’re not really in prison and anyway the door’s going to open any minute. Sometimes we even talk. I’ve got a lot of them convinced of my innocence and wisdom. They’d like to come into my cell and touch me but of course they can’t. Not because I wouldn’t let them; it’s just this door that I’m stuck behind. I’m a very touching, giving person. I love all of mankind (except for those bastards that did it to me of course, but how can you be expected to love them?). But I’m stuck in this solitary cell with walls and a door between me and everyone else, and I simply can’t exercise the love and compassion that I have because of circumstance, otherwise I would.
Meanwhile my body is going to seed and it’s all their fault because my cell is too small to do anything but pace and who wants to pace, and besides I’m too pissed off at this whole thing to do anything more than sit and brood. So I’m getting flabby and there are starting to be a few pains — probably arthritic — and soon my digestion will falter and my hands will start to shake and all my muscles will get weak, and pretty soon I’ll be a vegetable. That will serve them right because then they’ll have to take care of me forever as well they should since they put me here in the first place. And I’ll lie still inside my body and keep my hate and anger alive while the rest of the systems shut themselves down out of spite.
I’ve noticed that even when I lie down on the floor determined, I eventually get back up again. When I was a little kid, I’d try to hold my breath until I turned blue, no matter what, but I always started breathing again. I wonder what that is. I wonder if I really could get out of here. I know I’m naked, but I wonder what would happen if I just put my hand on the knob of this door and turned it.
Renais Jeanne Hill
Not long ago, like some wily, silent tomcat, the time changed, slinking mysteriously backward in the night. Next day, on the street, a younger couple stopped an older one:
“Excuse me,” said the young man, “do you have the time?”
“Quarter past three,” the older man replied.”
“You mean, ‘past four?’ ”
“No, ‘past three.’ The time changed overnight.”
The young couple began smiling and laughing in delight; they had a whole extra hour together before some future parting.
Such a simple matter, changing our watches. And yet too, quite an opportunity. Time is often an assumption. The sun comes up and the sun goes down, therefore there is time. It is as if time had an independence of being that granted one thing and withdrew another. Time has presence, power, and an implacability that seems to surround us, enforcing its will, sometimes to our satisfaction, sometimes not. When we speak, time is there — past, present, and future. When we are silent, time is there, light to dark, hot to cold, joy to sorrow, failure to success and blahs between. Time is powerful within, assumed like breathing yet seldom examined. What is this thing called “time”?
At an intellectual level, it can be fun to note: if we can alter time simply by altering our watches, then time is nothing more than a social convention, a way of communicating more easily. Certainly this is true. But assumptions as to the reality of time lie deeper as well, in the guts of our guts. We get older, taller, fatter, skinnier, sicker, healthier. . . . Who would deny the passage of time? Surely it may be assumed. But without examining the assumptions, time becomes a prison. Investigating time is a first-class way out of what is potentially a first-class prison.
Since there is no time when there is not time, the opportunities for investigation are boundless: lunch time, dinner time, day time, night time, work time, play time, etc. But these times are arbitrary, as subject to whim as setting the clock back. What of “real” time? — that sense that even if we do not watch, even if we do not name, still there is something/Something going on.
To get to the heart of time requires attention. A good bull session over a couple of beers may be a starting point, intellects whizzing hither and yon. Or a nice “spiritual” chat. Or philosophical. Or psychological. But I think that eventually the “personal” approach is best. Who, after all, is affected by time?
With attention, the matter clarifies itself. Lunchtime is one o’clock; one o’clock is lunchtime. I eat lunch. Eating lunch is not different from one o’clock. I am no other than eating lunch which is no other than one o’clock which is no other than your not-eating lunch at one o’clock. At one-thirty I get up from lunch. Getting up is one-thirty and is no other from your sitting down to eat. Not the same, not different, or, the same yet different. In this way there is responsibility. There is nothing extra. It is when time is seen as extra — something outside ourselves and somehow other — that the prison walls go up.
Of course there are some compelling joys to prison walls; they are steady, certain, secure, and evoke agreement in others. But when the sorrows that are the concomitants of joy come calling, when what was secure threatens to smother and what was steady starts to shake, then perhaps the investigation will seem worth the effort and you’ll have the time of your life.
New York, New York
Today is my sister’s twenty-first birthday. On this day when freedom is traditionally celebrated, she is in prison. It’s not the conventional kind of prison, with a special address and special clothes and limited visiting. There is no visiting. There is no address. I have not seen my sister for nearly a year.
There is no one my sister admires. There is no one my sister loves. There is no one my sister trusts. There is no one my sister believes. My sister lives the life she was taught to live. She has not broken out of the prison created by our shared childhood. One by one, as we have matured, we have each had to face our demons, and have each had to choose to continue with those demons or to take them on, to learn the risky business of living and loving. Our youngest sister, she who was perhaps the most damaged, the most discouraged, has not come through the gate we have tried to hold open for her. She lives her life in a box of despair, isolated and bitter.
The gate is open, Mary. We’re holding it open for you because we love you and we miss you. If you don’t like our gate, find another. But please don’t stay behind in the dark.
We make our own prisons so easily. I did. It felt safer to pull the door shut and stay locked inside. How could I get hurt that way? I called myself a loner. It sounded okay. After all, being a loner meant I was, perhaps, just eccentric — a nice, distinctive thing to be. I didn’t have to admit that the real reason I kept myself locked up was that I was afraid of rejection.
From what I understand, there are real honest-to-God loners who are happy that way. My problem was that, although I needed alone time, I needed people. What to do? Leave my self-made place of safety? Unlock the door? Look someone in the eye and say hello? What if that person didn’t say hello back?
I don’t exactly know how I figured it out, but with the help of a patient therapist, my understanding husband, our two marvelous sons, and a few friends I felt safe with, I discovered something that gave me the courage to open the door. I realized that no one wants to be hurt or rejected, and that most people were just as afraid to take the risk as I was. I found that if I took the initiative and if I indicated to people that I valued them, they were likely to respond to me. They felt good; I felt good. Then, to my wonder, I learned that the more I reached out, the better I felt, until, even if I was rebuffed by someone, I didn’t interpret it as a deficiency in me. It was okay.
Although I haven’t become the life of the party, and I still would go berserk without my privacy, I have unlocked the door and let myself out. The air is good out there, and so are the people I’ve finally allowed into my life.
Park Forest, Illinois
In my dream I had cancer.
I have dreamed of illness before but this was of a different quality — almost not a dream. I felt the feelings, and knew the thoughts and the awful reckoning of facing cancer for real.
I did not face it courageously, or with humor, detachment, wit or perspective. I sat in a semi-conscious daze. I struggled meekly. I succumbed.
I got shaky at first and couldn’t do normal exercise, or accomplish much of anything physically, without collapsing in weakness. I had no sense of will. I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach, and didn’t want to eat anyway. I was in anguish and I wanted it to stop, to go away.
I was helpless. It was time to see life-long friends and say good-byes. It was awful. Most of them couldn’t deal with what I was experiencing any more than I could.
I had no support beyond immediate family. There were no hospitals, no doctors, in my dream.
I think that I died.
And I awoke stunned and too much in touch with the reality I had encountered to feel anything so tawdry as relief, or happiness even, that it was only a dream. It was a healing dream — perhaps by default — in the sense that I woke up, here, and now, and whole.
And that it was only a dream would be a lie. It was a dream. I am glad to be here, fortunate to be here, asking myself what to make of it in this morning’s light.
Am I back in the prison of my body and my mind after a night’s soul travel? Perhaps I encountered myself in another “probable existence” — a la Jane Roberts — and I was given access for a moment, for a glimpse “ahead.” Does changing one’s implicit and unconscious, one’s deeply held beliefs, actually allow for an alteration of possible outcomes?
I escaped the imprisonment of my exceedingly real dream and am now free to contemplate the mystery of God’s forgotten language, the world of the dream.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Some people do not know how the North Carolina chain gang was back in the 1950s. I was sentenced to a prison term then and ended up on the chain gang. After sentencing, I was taken to a chain gang camp in a pickup truck, brought into the office, had my picture taken, was fingerprinted, and given a list of who could visit and write to me. I was allowed one visit every two weeks, only my immediate family — three persons. The visiting hours were from one to four every first and third Sunday evening in the month. I could only receive and write three letters each week — to my immediate family.
I was given one complete change of clothing, one blanket with holes in it, one pillow, and two sheets. The sheets were too short for the bunk because former convicts had torn the ends off for sweat rags. I was given a used pair of heavy work shoes. The odor coming from these shoes would just about knock you down. You had to wear them because this was all you could get.
I was taken into a building that had a dormitory on each side of a hall. There were about sixty men housed on each side. There were bars from the dorms separating the hall where the guard could see in at all times. The bunks were double and I received a top bunk. There was a mattress on the bunk that was about three inches thick and it was lumpy so a person could not get a good night’s rest.
The work hours were from six in the morning until five in the evening, plus five hours of work on Saturday. Everyone worked on the chain gang. Convicts who had seizures, cripples, and convicts with one eye were required to go out on the roads to work. Ten hours a day and five on Saturday, cutting bushes, digging ditches, and doing any other type of road work. It never got too cold or too hot to work a convict.
A typical breakfast on the chain gang was fried fatback meat, grits, black coffee, and black molasses. The convict would get one fried egg each week, on Sunday morning. In the dorms at night, when a convict had to get up to relieve himself, he yelled, “Getting up, Captain.” The guard in the hall would yell “Get on up.” There was a guard who watched a convict every minute of the day and night. A light burned in the dorms all the time and the convicts were never in the dark.
The ones who had escaped and gotten caught had a length of chain running from one ankle to the other. When they got up at night, there was a lot of clanking. With the lights in your eyes at night, convicts yelling, and the clanking of the chains, a convict did not get much rest.
Convicts were not paid in the 1950s. We received a five-cent bag of smoking tobacco for a week’s worth of fifty-five hours.
The chain gang camps had a segregation building for convicts who broke a camp rule. This was called the hole. The cells in this place were completely dark. They were the size of the mattress on the floor. The hole was about seven feet high. A convict was put in this hole for ten days on crackers and water; some convicts had to be carried out after that. There were two one-gallon buckets in this small hole, one to drink out of and one to use as a toilet. Do not get them mixed up in the dark! You were given a short white gown to wear in this hole. There was no heat. You could receive no visitors, no mail, and no smokes. A convict could only sit on his mattress in the hole and stare into the dark and think.
There were guard towers around the fence of the prison. They were manned twenty-four hours a day. A convict attempting to go over the fence was shot and killed if the guard shot straight enough. There were convicts serving from a thirty-day sentence to life. They were all mixed together in the 1950s — the short time man and the long time man. Any convict could be shot and killed trying to escape — the ones with thirty-day sentences and the ones with life sentences. It is hard to imagine that a person serving a thirty-day sentence for a drunk or traffic offense could be shot.
Every foreman working a squad of convicts had his own rules on the road. One I worked under told us no talking while working, no smoking while working, no standing around, and no looking at cars and women as they passed. He said if we obeyed these rules everyone would get along. If we did not, he had a place for us. He meant going to the hole on crackers and water for ten days.
All the medicine a convict could get in the 1950s was aspirin, liniment for strained muscles, castor oil for the stomach, and baking soda for indigestion. A convict’s medical problem had to be visible to be able to see a doctor. If the doctor looked at you and said there was nothing wrong, the convict was written up for faking sickness which meant ten days in the hole.
There were hundreds of rules to follow on the chain gang. Violation of these meant ten days in the hole. Below is a partial list of the rules.
- No smoking in bed.
- No talking after going to bed.
- No getting up without permission.
- No talking in the dining room.
- No smoking in the dining room.
- No cursing.
- No talking while working.
- Not calling the personnel “Captain.”
- No laying on bed with clothes on.
- Faking sickness.
- No gambling.
- Having a bad attitude.
- Not making your bed up.
- No nude pictures.
- No complaining about prison conditions.
- Not working fast enough to suit the foreman.
The list of rules goes on and on and they all were punishable by ten days in the hole on crackers and water.
In 1950, there was no TV in the chain gang camps. No radio. No newspapers. There were very few books to read. There were no schools. All the prisons wanted out of a convict was all the work he could do. To tell the complete story of how the chain gang was in the 1950s would take a longer story than this. I can truthfully say that the chain gang back thirty years ago was “Pure Hell.”