This week, the excellent online literary journal The Nervous Breakdown features a chapter from Charles Shaw’s prison memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics and Spirituality, recently released by Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. I will be ordering copies for myself and my prison pen pals. The book examines what the surveillance state and the prison-industrial complex are doing to the soul of America. Here’s a sample:
All cultures have their own particular concept of “limbo,” purgatory, or some other form of antechamber to paradise. The word “limbo” itself comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an “edge or boundary.” Used as proper nouns, Limbus describes the edge of Hell, and Limbo is a place for the souls of unbaptized infants and patriarchs who died before the coming of Christ, to wait for Christ to be born and pardon them. Once pardoned, they are in effect “saved” and become de facto Christians, and are ﬁnally granted access to eternal paradise. But the Messiah doesn’t seem to come around very often, so they sit around like millions of undocumented immigrants, waiting for the next mass amnesty.
Purgatory, by comparison, is like the express line at the US-Mexican Border, the one for people with spotless backgrounds, or diplomatic cover. It’s the waiting room for the already-saved, a kind of hazmat decontamination unit that scrubs off the last few sins and moral entanglements of the true believers, before they can cross the border into freedom and eternal, unencumbered bliss. What all of these places have in common is the theme of detention. Prison is all of these things constrained within the temporal, corporeal plane. The lives of inmates exist in stasis until that time when they are released back into the world. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the outside world, or about the life you may have been living, while you are incarcerated. Everything that you are doing in life stops in its tracks. Vita interrupta. Your rent and bills stop being paid, your mail stops being picked up, your phone is never answered, your email is never downloaded, your refrigerator is never cleaned out, your dog is never walked or fed. Forget about your dreams and ambitions, your plans and goals, because those get put on hold too. If you are lucky to reemerge, you are forever altered by the reality of a conviction record.
Nine times out of ten, no one but your family and closest friends, if you have them, know where you are or what happened to you. Those few people are your lifelines to the outside world, and generally are the only people to do anything for you. You ﬁnd out very quickly whom you can trust and who will really be there for you. Many inmates ﬁnd themselves with no one.
Prisons are situated on the fringes of civilization, isolated from most population centers and the general public, hidden away from sight in a gulag network of thousands of municipal, county, state, and federal facilities stretching across the land. Americans not only want to feel that their communities are safe, they really don’t want to have to trouble themselves with thinking about the consequences of locking up millions of people, or the abuses, in all forms, that might be taking place under a system of Prohibition funded by fear, apathy, and taxes. In America, it is simply a matter of out of sight, out of mind.
Because of that, and because of the isolation of the prison experience, the full understanding of what it is like to be forcibly dislocated from society becomes, for many inmates, the key struggle and in the end the key transformative experience of their lives. Jazz musicians talk about “sustained intensity.” Prison life is a frantic Coltrane riff that produces no sound and sucks the life right out of you. It’s a negative-sum game for which there is no recuperative period. No . . . Sleep . . . ’til . . . Parole!
The lack of popular noise produced over our national prison system, and the underlying reasons for the apparent apathy of the public, will keep Americans from ever having a Bastille moment, which was the storming of a Paris prison that sparked the French Revolution. The American public’s pervasive lack of political involvement seems to keep them from storming anything except a Wal-Mart during Christmas shopping season. Plus, since American prisons are so far away from everything else, the proverbial angry mob would have to endure a six-hour bus trip ahead of time before they could commence stormin’.
But prisoners of the drug war aren’t seen by the Mainstream as political prisoners, as victims of tyranny like those held in the Bastille by Louis XVI, even though that’s precisely what they are.
There are reasons for this, and most are attributable to race and class. At its core, the war on drugs is nothing more than the criminalization of lifestyle. In many regards, it is also a war on religious freedom, and on consciousness itself.
The punishment for defying the system and exerting these inherent freedoms (the ones endowed by our Creator and all) is ﬁrst disability, then disenfranchisement, then imprisonment, and ﬁnally, internal exile. Limbo time everybody, how low can you go? When in limbo, one invariably has an entirely new understanding of time.
I would spend 13 days in isolation at the Stateville Northern Reception and Classiﬁcation center in Joliet, Illinois, before being sent on to my prison facility to serve out the remainder of my sentence. Thirteen endless days in a brand-new, state-of-the-art, hyper-sterile, hyper-industrialized detention facility. It was “only” 13 days, I can tell myself now, four years later. But while it was happening, it was a form of torture that leaves an indelible scar on a person’s soul. That is why they call Stateville “Hotel Hell.”
It is a cold and sterilized form of detention, a little taste of a supermax prison for everyone. Once they process you in, and stuff you into that 6 x 10 cement hole, you don’t come out again. You are on 24-hour-a-day lockdown with your cellmate, if you have one, and nothing else. Nothing to read, nothing to see, nothing to do but wait, wait, wait. And once the waiting begins, things start to go all sorts of ways inside your mind.
Thirteen days was interminable while on lockdown, yet right now I think over the last 13 days of my life and can’t remember half of it. Most people wouldn’t think twice about doing anything for two weeks, until it’s put into the proper context. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted 13 days. Ask anyone who lived through it to tell you what a hellish eternity it was, teetering, if only brieﬂy, on the edge of nuclear annihilation. Ask anyone on day seven of a two-week master cleanse fast how they feel, or two new lovers separated for two weeks, or the parents of a lost child, or someone waiting two weeks for test results that will tell them whether they live or die.
Likewise, two weeks spent in the cold and dark—half-starved, without anything to occupy your mind, contemplating your past, your life, your crimes literal and spiritual, missing people you love, pondering your future as a convict, stressing about which penitentiary you will be sent to and what you will have to face once you get there, and soon and so forth—is its own particularly menacing brand of torment.