One recent evening, I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner and feeling very happy. Yes, the activity was mundane, but I was where I’d chosen to be, doing what I’d chosen to do. And my surroundings were so pleasant–my inviting kitchen opening onto a colorful living room adorned with plants, and the summer night sounds coming in through the open window.
All of this suddenly felt SO precious to me, SO different from the day before, which I’d spent mostly in jail. There, in a holding cell at a Washington, DC police station, I felt trapped, locked into a very cold room, with no natural light, only a cement slab for furniture, no access to reading, writing, food, or a glimpse of the outside.
The moment I heard that door lock shut from the other side, my stomach clenched. The freedom I had always taken for granted suddenly vanished. It didn’t matter where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. It frightened me to realize that I was at the mercy of a large, impersonal system made up of strangers. When I could leave was up to them, and they could treat me kindly or cruelly, as they chose. My ability to make choices had been taken away.
But unlike other prisoners in that jail, I and the 53 others with whom I’d been arrested had chosen to be there. We had knowingly put ourselves at odds with the law by committing an act of civil disobedience. We had occupied the Washington office of a global corporation that had committed fraud in an attempt to get a go-ahead for the Keystone XL pipeline. So concerned were we about the impact the pipeline would have on climate that we were willing to sacrifice to stop the project.
There, in that dreary cell, when I wasn’t talking with my two cellmates or doing jumping jacks to keep warm, I had plenty of time to reflect. My thoughts naturally turned to my longtime penpal Pam, who has been living in a Texas prison for the last 20 years. Given my current situation, my sympathy for Pam’s plight suddenly intensified. How does Pam bear the loss of so many of life’s simple freedoms, I wondered? She cannot call a friend, visit the library, or take a walk. She can never see the stars at night, nor can she decide when to take a shower or go to bed.
The loss of freedom is truly a profound loss.
But I know from Pam’s letters that the prison system does not stop with curtailing inmates’ freedom. The system goes out of its way to inflict unnecessary suffering, simply because it has the power to do so. Pam has told me of many abuses to which she is subjected. For example, the drinking water available to her sometimes contains visible dirt. Her precious dictionary was confiscated for no apparent reason. And she must pay for the medications she needs, even though she has no way to earn money.
I too felt abused, even though my stay in jail was so short. We shivered in our cells, and the authorities had taken away my sweater. When I told the guard we were cold and asked if they could lighten up on the air conditioning, he looked at me incredulously and answered with a laugh, “You want it warmer in here? This is jail!” And apparently the DC jail is not the only place where temperature is used as a tactic of abuse. California prison authorities, I’d been told, recently got back at hunger-striking prisoners by lowering the temperature in their cells to the 40s.
Another form of abuse that seems especially painful to me is needless deprivation of the natural world. When a Super Max prison was built in Virginia’s beautiful Big Stone Gap some years back, all the windows were soaped, to ensure that the prisoners could not look out on a gorgeous mountain landscape.
Our justice system sometimes goes out of its way to humiliate prisoners. Pam has told me that where she is, certain guards routinely subject black inmates to racist insults. While Pam has the option to file a complaint about such treatment, she knows that the result would be retaliation. And once when she had to go to a hospital, she was transported in chains, on a bus where the only toilet was in full view of the guards transporting her. She felt greatly humiliated having to enter the hospital in shackles.
I got my own taste of humiliation at our arraignment in court several weeks after our time in jail. Even though our ‘crime’ gave no reason to suspect drug use, we nonetheless had to pee into a cup in front of a guard. And it seemed that everyone appearing in court that day, whatever the charge, was subjected to that same indignity.
As the 54 of us await our upcoming second court appearance for the same ‘crime,’ I continue to think about the abuses and humiliations that seem so integral a part of prison. Are people improved by such treatment? Will it make them more constructive members of society when their sentence is up?
How I wish that US prisons were more like the prisons of Sweden, where inmates are treated more respectfully. My friend Al Bronstein, founder of ACLU’s Prison Project, has visited prisons in other countries, and he told me about how different it is for prisoners in Sweden. There, they continue to have some choice in their lives. For example, in Swedish prisons, the prisoners cook for themselves. They form groups that plan menus, order groceries, prepare meals, and clean up.
Swedish prison officials seem to understand that if prisoners are to function successfully after their release, they must remain connected with the outside world while in prison. Swedish prisoners do not lose their right to vote. And many of them maintain a lively interest in local and national elections, actively campaigning in prison for particular candidates and holding forums where issues are debated.
I know that prisons are important, in order to keep certain people from harming the rest of us and to provide a disincentive to commit crime. But the loss of liberty inherent to prison is sufficient to achieve prison’s legitimate goals.