During the first year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, the local county jail wouldn’t admit volunteers. Incarceration in the United States sounds crummy most of the time, but most of the people I’ve communicated with have said that things were even worse during the pandemic: more fear, more tension, fewer opportunities to do much of anything either than sit & worry.
Around that time, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project – an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated – received many letters like this:
“The prison I am at has us on 23 hour a day lockdown due to the coronavirus threat. We also lost access to most jobs around the prison, visits, library, and a lot of other things that help relieve stress, like sports, walking track, weight-lifting, church, etc.
So books will be a huge help, we are three-deep to a cell and I can’t say I always enjoy the company.”
And also –a la Baudelaire’s “oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – we received some terrifying stories from people who got very sick:
“On Sept 1st I was Covid-positive, on Sept 4 shortly after 6 a.m. I was rushed to the hospital. I was on a ventilator & in paralytic coma for 6 ½ days. Both lungs free of pneumonia, I have now been diagnosed with stress-induced cardiomyopathy due to Covid. I am back at the prison. My voice sounds like a man (LOL).”
There are almost always communicable diseases circulating through the jails and prisons. That’s certainly still been true during the Covid-19 pandemic: in southern Indiana, vaccine uptake is relatively low, especially among the population of people usually targeted for incarceration. Still, volunteers began visiting the jail again as soon as we were allowed – during stressful times, people need more support and kindness than usual, not less.
For the past few months, the administration has been letting us bring equipment to record people reading books for their kids. Then librarians at our excellent local library send the video and a paper copy of the book to the person’s kids.
After a Sunday morning recording session, someone was telling me a bit about her recent experience:
“We’ve got three levels of security in the women’s block right now, so we’re on lockdown about 22 hours a day. They only let us out to the common area one level at a time.”
“Breakfast at 4:30, why I was feeling a sleepy. They do have coffee at commissary, instant coffee. Commissary’s a little tough, the prices of everything have gone up but they didn’t raise the weekly cap, so you can get a little less each week. My parents have been putting money in my commissary, but you can’t do more than the cap.”
“My parents have been taking good care of me, thank God, not that I deserve it.”
Which always breaks my heart to hear somebody say. She deserves help. We all do.
I doubt there’s anyone among us who would be pleased to have people always associate us with the worst things we’d ever done. Or have our worst moments mulled over by judges and prosecutors and public defenders, then written up in someone else’s words and stored in a permanent file.
I’ve certainly done bad things & broken laws: I had the good fortune to not be caught. (Good fortune, plus pale skin, masculine frame, upper-class accent, apartments in wealthy, less-policed areas …) I drove with drugs in my car. And I definitely hurt people – started petty arguments, callously trampled feelings – in ways that aren’t illegal, but I’d still feel awful having those moments replayed again and again, discussed in a courtroom, treated as though those smallest, meanest moments were the essence of me, the most important thing for somebody to know about me.
In Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes that:
“I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others.”
“But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
“I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations – over the things they’d done, or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst things we’ve ever done.”
“I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief.”
In jail that day, I tried to say something vaguely similar. But at the end of our recording session, I got to return to my loving family. I got to read a book to my children while hugging them.
She went back to the block, waiting for us to mail a DVD of her reading & a copy of the book to her kids. Which isn’t the same, and isn’t enough.