The United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. It’s a staggering statistic, and I see the evidence for it every day. New prisons pop up in any community that will have them, and existing prisons, like this one, have overflow bunks in day rooms, gyms, and recreation areas. Cells meant for four have eight. Cells built for one have two.
My most difficult challenge in prison is not the loss of freedom. It is the loss of solitude. Dostoyevsky wrote of his years in a Siberian gulag. More than anything, I was unprepared for the utter devastation to my psyche wrought by year upon year of never ever, not for a single moment being alone with myself.
I never knew how much I needed solitude and silence until I was deprived of them. For my first five years in prison, I had to share a cell with seven other prisoners. For someone facing a sentence of 67 years, the overcrowding takes a dire spiritual and psychological toll. There were times when I would have given anything for time alone and in silence.
This prison has a field surrounded by a 1/4 mile walking track. It’s also surrounded by double 20 ft. chain link fences each topped with a triple helix of razor wire. Beyond all that, if you can get your mind to filter out the sight of razor wire and guard towers, are trees.
The field is surrounded by forest on three sides. TREES! After five years in a world of concrete and steel, I had forgotten about trees! They were magnificent, and though I could not touch them I could see them. On the first day that I could go to the field to walk, I experienced the eeriest sensation.
Only 20 prisoners ventured out there on that day. As I rounded a bend on the 1/4 mile track near the outfield, I was overwhelmed with a sense of the foreign. I was alone for a few moments for the first time in years. I was surrounded by silence after all the years of senseless prison din, and I was in the company of trees.
It was a setting that I instantly knew could save me from Dostoyevsky’s despair.
For the shortest hour the universe has ever known, I was alone, silent and free on the edge of a forest. My hour in the field had awakened my soul.
From the barred, hermetically-sealed window of my prison cell, I have a view of a high sheet-metal wall with row upon row of razor wire on top. I can see nothing beyond it as it fills the view.
In the center of my field of view is a locked door. It is the door leading to the field. It is closed and obscured from view through the long New Hampshire winter as the snow drifts bar the way. In summer it opens only when it doesn’t rain and when guards are available to man the towers.
Morning after morning, I stare out my window at that door willing it to open. It opens just enough between May and October to remind me that beyond these stone walls, there is still a world of sky and trees, and the allure of freedom.
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