Art & Culture

Locked up

What if life was just a few square feet, and seemingly endless time, and limited interaction with others?
What do lions in zoos think about?
What happens when society thinks you don’t belong in it according to the moral code of the hour?

I’ve never known anyone personally who spent time in prison, but the notion of separating people from the general populace as a kind of penance fascinates me. The shifting concepts of legality, morality, and appropriate punishment result in very concrete and stark consequences for individual human beings. These individuals, in most cases, are then expected to rejoin the regular population and function, somehow.

I thought I’d bring two things that I’ve read recently on the subject together, because I think they’re worth reflecting on. An article by Ariel Leve in the Times goes into deep and finely wrought detail about the “Pink Mile”, or Death Row for women in a prison in America. From the perspective of a guard:

For the rest of her shift she often listens to inmates screaming that they’ll kill themselves, sometimes cutting and scratching their arms, wetting the bed. From the time she enters until the time she leaves there is no lull.

It surprised her that the capital cases aren’t more edgy. Charlie pod has 24 cells, most with two women in each. The women who have been sentenced to die have a cell each. They watch the other inmates come and go after their sentences are done, peering out their door every day, knowing they are never going to leave.

Schaefer has considered what this must be like. “I would not want to spend the rest of my life looking out that little window knowing that when they come to get me to be executed, that will be the last view outside that I ever see. But I have never seen one of them break down.” Her voice is neutral. It is not admiration, but wonderment. “They know what their future holds. I never ask them things because I have to be indifferent. I can’t get emotionally or personally involved because I have a job to do.”

I also recently re-read One Day in The Life of Ivan Desnisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Set in a 1950s Soviet labour camp, the spare prose outlines a single day in the life of one prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. As in the snippet of Leve’s article above, this story powerfully conveys the way humanity has fallen away, the way that humans can so quickly cease to relate to each other, or feel that they must not relate as humans for their own survival or advancement. Shukhov sees an administrator at the camp’s sick bay:

“There you are — neither one thing nor the other. Thirty-seven point two. If it was thirty-eight, nobody would argue. I can’t let you off, but you can stay if you feel like risking it. The doctor will look you over and let you off if he thinks you’re ill, but if he reckons you’re fit, you’ll be in the hole for malingering. I’d go to work if I were you.”

Shukhov rammed on his hat and left without a word or a nod.

Can a man who’s warm understand one who’s freezing?

A great question, with no answer.

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