Recently a family member spent twenty days in a northeastern Ohio county jail. Upon his release, he phoned me, and was soon overcome by anguished sobs. We wept together.
I’d expected to feel pure joy at that moment. But, like him, I’d crossed through a portal I’d never wanted to enter, and the trauma couldn’t just be shaken off. I wonder now if it ever quite goes away: the intense vulnerability, the fear, the survivor guilt, the peculiar rage. Maybe it’s just what people live with once they have been personally touched by the “system.”
But why the rage? Hadn’t he deserved his sentence? After all, he could have gotten two months. Didn’t he need to be taught a lesson? Isn’t that what a smug letter writer in the Cincinnati Enquirer recently proclaimed: “do the crime, do the time?” So simple: what don’t you understand?
But the waves of rage that kept me awake during his incarceration were more unbearable than any I have ever known. Where did they come from? Whose were they? Who were they aimed at?
My family member lived in a pod of about thirty other guys. He was given three meals a day, a change of garb twice a week (no underwear), air-conditioning (set way too high), a thin mat for his steel bunk, one blanket, and flip-flops. To while away the hours, he could choose to watch t.v. (lots of cop shows), gamble at cards to win an extra lunch, pace the floor of the common room for exercise, or sleep all day.
Too cold to sleep, he managed to barter two desserts for a pair of socks. After ten days, with a money order from home, he was able to purchase a pair of boxers at the commissary. He cupped his hands at the faucet whenever he needed a drink, since there were no drinks with meals. He was allowed two books, if sent direct from a bookstore. He got to make frequent phone calls home, since he had family willing to pay the exorbitant fees. At 5:00 a.m., for no particular reason, or certainly not a reason he was informed of (because no one was informed of anything) he and the others received breakfast in a bag, which they saved for later on. Then they attempted, with lights glaring, to go back to sleep till 7:00.
I know human beings often endure greater hardships, which sometimes they choose (as with soldiers) and sometimes are inflicted upon them by natural or man-made disasters. Occasionally, some are ennobled by the adversity.
But somehow the hardships of county jail felt to me custom-designed for building rage. I was stunned by the cute little deprivations, the petty indignities. Why no underwear? Why the neglecting to inform people ahead of time that they could bring money for the commissary? Why the long routine lockdowns where you were confined to your bunk? Why the short nights and endless days? Why just one hour of fresh air on Tuesdays and Fridays in a small courtyard, playing basketball in flip-flops with blistered feet?
Ignorant as I was of the rationale for all this, my gut churned with a dark explanation: making others squirm is just so satisfying. For everyone from county officials to high-school educated corrections officers, wielding power over those who are down-and-out works wonders.
It allows us to forget that we too could slip some day. We might have one too many drinks and plow into a human being on the highway, might get scared shitless and pull a trigger, might become slave to an addiction, all due to our own unfathomable wounds, combined, perhaps, with poverty, desperation, mental illness, racism, or plain, horrifying bad luck.
When we glibly cry, “Lock them up!” we have to bury all that we have learned about the fragility of the human psyche, the life-long effects of trauma and “Adverse Childhood Experiences.” We have to ignore how ineffectual punishment has been shown to be in transforming human beings, how it just mostly mows people down, strips them of hope, numbs or embitters them. Psychologically sophisticated parents do not whip their children and send them to bed without their supper. When they are in trouble, they seek help for them.
How is it that so few of us question incarceration for all the hurting children who grow up and magically morph into “those bad guys out there?” We still assume that society has the right and duty to waste whole human lives for weeks and months, or (in prisons) for years on end, depriving them of all that keeps human beings human: family, warm touch, expanses of sky, trees and grass, meaningful work, community, the freedom to move, to learn, and personal agency over one’s life.
In the dead of the night, images of so many people locked away with impunity in this strangely vindictive country flooded my imagination. And I could not silence the nagging question: how long will we keep claiming the right to cage our fellow human beings?
I know sometimes people need to be isolated from society for a while because they are dangerous. But if that were our real motive for incarceration, wouldn’t the harsh conditions we set up be totally gratuitous? Our prisons might look like some Scandinavian prisons, where people actually lead real lives.
Anyway, with these guys in the county jail, we were not talking danger. We were talking mostly heroin. Or mistakes. Stupid crimes, heartless law enforcement.
Surely we can find other ways to hold one another accountable for our wrongdoings, ways that don’t squander God-given lives in deadly boredom and routinely destroy entire families. Surely the need for revenge, understandable in those who are victimized, needs to be gently pried loose from its timeless place of honor in U.S. institutions.
The rage that sabotaged me during those nights often morphed into fury at my husband. I had to remind myself it was not aimed at him. And in fact it seemed to come from well beyond me. I was feeling what the guys in that pod didn’t dare feel, lest it exploded, and led to further punishment. The rage of powerlessness, many of them wondering from day to day how their wives and children were doing, but with families too poor to afford phone calls. Or the rage, hidden even from themselves, at watching those with more resources revel in their Saturday haul of luxuries from the commissary: ramen noodles, a cup, deodorant, an extra blanket.
Or the unendurable rage of knowing nothing about their own future, how long they would be stuck in this limbo of county jail, where no one bothers with any humanizing services; so many guys waiting for their court hearing, waiting for a spot to finally open in rehab, waiting to be transferred to the bigger and better holding pens they call prisons, some day, who knows when.
I can shoulder all this anger on behalf of these men only because I am not under the thumb of the system. Only because my spirit is actively nourished, my emotions honored, my dignity unquestioned. But isn’t that what all of us need, every moment, every season of our lives? Isn’t that what we owe one another?