One Day in the Life of 179212: Notes from an American Prison
Every morning at twenty past four I wake up to the sound of the toilet flushing. The flush of a prison toilet is especially powerful, and therefore loud, because inmates use toilets to dispose of all kinds of things: trash, food scraps, torn bed linen, drugs, plastic bags used for brewing mash, and so on. In order to ensure that all the detritus disappears down the pipes, the guards turn up the water pressure as high as possible. Problem-free waste disposal is, after all, the primary mission of today's correctional system.
After flushing the toilet, my cell partner leaves for the dayroom to watch TV. I climb down from the top bunk, make my bed, wash my face, brush my teeth, and pee—all in the dark. I don't need any light for my morning ritual because I've lived in this same cell for several years. There's not an inch of it I don't know by heart.
From the door to the barred window the cell measures eleven feet, six inches. The back half is six feet, eight inches wide, while the front is only five feet, four inches due to the pipe chase. Inside is the bunk bed, a wall-mounted table, a gray plastic chair, four metal lockers, two shelves, a sink, and a toilet. When my cell partner and I are both up and about, I have to press myself against the wall to allow him to go from the bed to the sink.
At this hour, however, I am alone and able to sit in the gray plastic chair to meditate. I do this three times a day, thirty-five to forty minutes at a time, for a total of about two hours. I began this practice in January 2000 while I was still at Wallens Ridge State Prison, at that time one of Virginia's two supermax facilities.
During the eleven months I spent at Wallens Ridge, I witnessed almost every abuse you can imagine and might even expect at such a place. Mentally ill prisoners howled out their misery; guards beat an inmate so badly that his blood spattered waist-high on the walls; two prisoners died under dubious circumstances; and hysterically barking dogs sometimes escorted us to and from the shower. Shootings were constant, even in the showers and the dining hall.
I was shot once, although it was unintentional, and I was only hit with a rubber pellet. A prisoner who'd just arrived and hadn't yet become accustomed to the rules of the supermax had gone to empty his rubbish into the large, gray trashcan in the dayroom. The guard in the elevated gun port had screamed at him: Was he blind? Couldn't he see the red line on the floor around the trashcan? That meant the prisoner had to ask permission before crossing it to throw away his trash. Everyone knew that!
The new inmate responded with a single expletive—not even an especially egregious one by prison standards—but it was enough to provoke the guard into firing a warning shot. It was a dummy round, but came with an incredibly loud BANG that bounced back and forth off the concrete walls of the dayroom. We old-timers threw ourselves to the floor; this kind of thing was almost routine by now. But the new prisoner remained on his feet, slightly crouched, looking from side to side in confusion. I was lifting my head to look around when the guard fired a live round at him, throwing the prisoner to the ground.
Like a swarm of angry bees, the marble-sized, hard rubber balls ricocheted off the floor and walls near the new inmate. One of them struck me on the left bicep. My face was near my upper arm because I was prone on the floor, so the hard rubber ball just missed my eye. A couple of inches in the wrong direction, and I could very well have been blinded. As it was, I wasn't injured physically, but the incident certainly left a psychological scar. In the following weeks, the slightest noise startled me deeply. And for some reason, I also became extremely nervous every time I had to pee.
Such unease was nothing compared to what the prisoner next to the trashcan experienced. He was hit by the full force of many rubber pellets fired by the shotgun, and he was subjected to the therapeutic beating that the guards administered to any inmate whose actions provoked the use of firepower. Lots of reports have to be written and reviewed every time a weapon is fired, so someone has to pay for creating all that extra work.
As it turned out, the rubber ball that hit me in the arm was a blessing. I immediately filed a written complaint, reminded everyone that my father was a German diplomat (at the time, the chargé d'affaires in Papua New Guinea), and wrote angry letters describing the incident to the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. My efforts must have had some effect, for two months later I was transferred to Brunswick Correctional Center, the Commonwealth of Virginia's model prison. Every luxury the convict's heart desires can be found here—except freedom and hope.
In addition to my transfer to Brunswick, another positive and unexpected outcome of my stay at Wallens Ridge was that I began to meditate regularly. I did this to try to get away from a horrible reality. Although the wish to escape in my mind was part of the reason for beginning the practice, it certainly did not end up as the totality of it.
When I meditate, I am in touch with the Eternal, the Good, and the True. One can search for this trinity in the world beyond prison, too, but it's easy to be fooled into accepting substitutes. Instead of the truly Eternal, one might make do with a whole series of "eternal" loves. Instead of the genuinely Good, one may rely on one's Platinum Master Card® to pursue the "American Dream." Instead of the really True, one might be satisfied with the many truths of our multicultural, global society. None of these are necessarily wrong in themselves, but each is only an image, a reflection of essence, and not the essence itself.
In the world of the penitentiary, however, there is no opportunity to confuse image with essence. Nothing in my world can possibly give the illusion of being the Eternal, the Good, and the True. There are diversions—"situational" homosexual activity, drugs, mash, and so forth—but not even we inmates are foolish enough to mistake these distractions for the real thing.
Fortunately, that Real Thing can be found—not in the outer reality, however, but in the inner world that I reach through meditation. In this inner world, I come to know the Eternal, the Good, and the True, and they give me the strength and courage to endure the daily trials of my outer world. I learned this at Wallens Ridge, which is why I can honestly say that, for me, the supermax was a blessing.
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