Many times, throughout the day, I forget that I am human. After 27 years of confinement in a concrete box looking out a sliver of a window, it’s easy to forget. When I try to remember, prison staff won’t let me forget that I’m just another number. For the most part, I’m used to it. I’m like a worn-out penny. People don’t stoop over to pick me up. A penny costs more to print than its actual value; 2.72 cents to be exact. More trouble than it’s worth. My value in people’s eyes is even less. Diminished to zero. On occasion though, something happens that puts this phenomenon so in my face that it rends me from my stupor and jars me back into the fight for humanity; into the struggle that the incarcerated feel daily.
It is easy to compare incarcerated people and animals. Like zoo animals, those of us behind bars are tagged with a permanent wrist band, identified by a number, caged and marched single file through the feeding gates — all the things that I observed on the small Tennessee farm where I was raised as a child. Back then, I watched my father steer the cattle, direct them to the field to graze on, monitor their output of milk, and when their usefulness was complete, he drove them to the slaughterhouse to meet their death.
I never thought I would be on the receiving end of a cattle prod. Here, the incarcerated are viewed by prison officials as simply dollar signs with a certain price attached to them. The trouble of providing edible food, decent medical care and rehabilitation programs would only melt away their profits.
A few weeks ago, the guards allowed our unit out on a small yard to walk around in circles, like exercising ponies in an arena. This yard, the size of one ring in a three-ring circus, is patched with small blankets of grass and weeds, sporadically disbursed about the hard clay foundation. It’s a place to breathe in fresh air — a nice change from the stale, sweaty scents the prison walls hold. It’s like a dog run, just outside the animal cage for us to stretch our legs.
While on my trot around the ring, I noticed amongst the weeds growing in the scattered patches of grass, some wild onions popping up. I recognized them from the many walks in the woods I had with my mother, a trained forager. She was always finding wild garlic, onions and other edible greens to add to our modest meals.
How delicious those onions would taste in whatever bland slop awaited me that evening — or even better, how well they could spice up a cup of ramen noodles from the prison commissary. I could eat them in my cell in private, all to myself. That quickly became the plan. When the guards were chatting and distracted, I found the onions that were closest to me, yanked them out of the ground, and stuffed them in my pocket. My heart was racing. It was as if I had stolen the Hope Diamond.
We were called back to our cells, single file, past the guards who randomly patted us down. I made no eye contact, hoping to avoid being searched. “Inmate!” — it’s always “inmate” even though we both know he knows my name — “Step aside, hands on the wall.” As his hands rolled down my body, he felt the onion bulbs and instead of simply emptying my pockets, he made me remove my pants so he could go through them thoroughly. He pulled out my wild onions and began laughing. He looked toward his fellow guard and exclaimed, “I told you they were a bunch of wild animals, this one’s picking weeds to eat.” He kept my pants and told me to walk on to my cell in my drawers. Humiliated and fearing the disciplinary write-up I knew would come, I realized that I would not see the outside for a long spell.
The private, for-profit prison I’m housed at does not offer fruit or milk on any of the meal trays, nor fresh vegetables or anything that has any hope of pleasing the palate or the stomach. My senses crave seasoning so desperately that I find myself sticking my tongue to my sweaty arm to taste the salt.
Recently I watched an officer enter my unit with a red delicious apple in his grip — obviously one he brought from home. He tossed it up and down in the air, taunting those watching with this enticing forbidden fruit. Eventually, many stopped watching him, so he stopped tossing the apple and sat down on a table. I didn’t want to give him any more attention than necessary; no need to feed his already exaggerated ego. But I kept my eyes trained on the apple.
Soon he took a small bite of it, then went to the trash and tossed it in. No one seemed to notice but me. When he left the unit for a moment, I hurried to the can, pretending to empty my own garbage. When I opened the lid, there it was, sitting right on top. I gently lifted the red jewel, placed it in my small trash can, and hurried back to my cell. I rinsed it and allowed my teeth to pierce the flesh of actual fruit. The flavor burst in my mouth and an avalanche of emotion flooded my heart. I cried and ate, cried and ate, until nothing but seeds were left.
At first, I thought my tears were over the excitement from the magnificent flavor of the apple and for the artifice of my covert snatch-and-grab. I soon realized the tears were from the absurdity of having to rummage through the trash to retrieve an unwanted apple. How was I different from a critter lying in wait outside the backdoor of a restaurant waiting for the trash bin to be filled? I could just as easily have been a rat scurrying about at night trying to find a few crumbs to live on.
The officer knew how to dehumanize all of us in that moment, advertising something he knew we could not get. How far we are from prison rehabilitation and reintegration; this is retribution. It seems a person who is put in charge of incarcerated people would want them to be able to thrive and change their lives for the better and have hopes of joining society again. Especially since most will be released one day and may very well be his next-door neighbor. He should want to encourage kindness and mercy, not the routine dismissal of humanity that we consistently experience.
But sometimes, I forget that I am human because they don’t want me to remember.
In order to start such an evolution of change, we must take time to really see each other — not as creatures taking up our space, or lost souls in the desert unable to be redeemed, or dollar signs to make a profit. But I fear I may never see the U.S. change its “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality. Not in my lifetime.
The fact is, if we really believe that life matters, that should mean it matters from the womb to the tomb, and all the messy parts in between. We should always make room for redemption. Redemption for all souls of humanity — those incarcerated as well as those souls struggling beyond. Only then will we demonstrate that we value all life from beginning to end.
These days I write with a sense of desperation — like each word could be my last. Maybe I’m scared that if I stop writing, I’m telling God, “I’m done.” Some days I want to be done, but I’m scared I’m leaving too much unsaid, unnoticed, unseen. There is graffiti scratched on the ceiling above my bunk. Words from great poets or mystics from before. A few words scratched with nails or etched in blood can reveal the urgency and desperation an incarcerated writer experiences. Amongst the phrases and names already placed there, I scratch, “Tony was here.”
I’m alive, I am human. I won’t forget.
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