In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana. We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:
I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
The guys asked me when these experiments had happened.
“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.
“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then! Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard. Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”
I was shaking my head. “Five pounds? The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California. Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”
“Two hundred dollars? You got ripped off!”
I laughed. “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”
“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”
I demurred. “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”
The guy’s face fell. The room grew silent. Until somebody shouted, “Oregano? He just called you a major asshole!”
I felt pretty bad. I’d really hurt his feelings.
As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.
Unsuccessfully. Possibly by accident. But still.
There was a dropped wallet. His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through. Then an arrest.
That whole episode transpired almost three years ago. But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.
The guy has been in my class several times before. I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street. Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.
Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me. He said he hadn’t known whose card it was. I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse. Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.
Money isn’t sacred.
I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other. The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings. Money comes and money goes. It’s just paper. Or less: numbers inside a machine.
That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank. We scan a card and the value of our account goes down. Nothing physically happens.
Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.
But passing off drugs as something they’re not? That violates something sacred. Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.
You don’t have to be honest all the time. You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers. That’s all harmless talk. Passing the time, shooting the shit.
If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test. Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it. For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.
When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt. If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope. Not pot dipped in embalming fluid. Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.
I won’t tell another joke about oregano.
Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges. But one really rankles him:
“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice? The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me! They put my picture on Fox News. I was so fucking pissed! I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”
scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name
it. Sometimes these names seem
reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify
proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or
“cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,”
fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other
scientists. There’s the gene “cheap
date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable
to process ethanol and so quickly passes
out. Another genetic mutation produced
male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for
over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal
courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,”
because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.
Yup, some gene names were bad. One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.
gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a
fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying.
A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog. It seemed funny at the time! See? The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it? You get it, right?
Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells
to recognize their spatial position in a developing body. If a human fetus comes to term despite having
a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result
in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain
a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog
And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes. Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.
Words have power, after all.
people are more attentive to their environments than others. During evolutionary time, this trait was
obviously good for humanity. If your
tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody
around who is paying attention to the world.
A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion
about to leap out and attack. Maybe
we should take a different path.
Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.
people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy
for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem. During evolutionary time, this trait was
surely good for humanity, too. It’s helpful
to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously. But it’s also helpful to have somebody who
might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets. A way of cooking mud into pottery that could
carry or store water.
Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself. Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges. Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish. A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.
our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at
different times. Some brains are primed
to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night. And that’s good. It reduces the amount of time that a tribe
would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.
the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity
that allowed our species to thrive. The
high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag
themselves through morning classes like zombies. They’ll be midway through first period before
the sun rises. Their teachers glance
derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.
humans invented language. Much later, we
invented writing. Much, much later, we
invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible
that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.
course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.
If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait. When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away. When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then. Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success. People like me become medical doctors. Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.
when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive
to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of
being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit
those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead,
we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.
never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for
passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):
ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom. That’s your battlefield reflexes. In a real fight, they’d keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that’s because
you see too much, Percy, not too little.”
trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit
disorder.” Which makes sense – if you’ve
gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should
learn to be more aware of your environment.
It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven
itself to be dangerous.
somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside
and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling
grizzly fifteen meters away.
children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly. And if it can happen to him, why not other
grown-ups, too? Best to stay on high
alert around the teacher. She’s trying
to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?
Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world. They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).
Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad. And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds. Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.
poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times
during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside
just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners
and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.
I know,” he said. “But I might be out on
a urine screen. But I was doing
good. Out for six months, and they were
screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”
he said, nodding. “But I wasn’t hitting
it bad, this time. I know I look like I
lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was
hard getting enough to eat. Wasn’t like
last time. I don’t know if you remember,
like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in. But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step
outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “
apparently a common phenomenon. When we
incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the
world. Inside the jail, there is a set
routine. Somebody is often barking
orders, telling people exactly what to do.
There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the
white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan
CO shirts and dark brown pants.
world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make. Will you sit and try to listen to the
TV? (The screen is visible from three or
four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.) Try, against all odds, to read a book? Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying
to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is
speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?
spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world
atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in
these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.
“ … so I
vape a lot, outside. I step out of this
place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette. And, every now and then … “
physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings. And so he doses himself with chemicals that
let him ignore the world as well as I can.
yes. He grew up with an abusive
stepfather. This led to his acting
squirrelly in school. And so, at ten
years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.
Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing. The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.
know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man
be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?
Most laboratory animals live in bleak environs. With mice, each cage typically contains a single animal. There is bedding, food, and water. There is very little space.
A lab mouse will be illuminated for many hours each day – sometimes twenty-four, sometimes slightly fewer – by fluorescent lights. It will hear the constant thrum of ventilation fans and refrigerator compressors. At least once a week, an apex predator – wafting stress-inducing smells, especially if it’s male – will reach into its home and grab it.
Chances are, it will see other mice. A rotating cadre will fill adjacent cages during its tenure in the lab. They will never touch.
Our cruelty makes for bad science, too.
When social animals are stored in isolation, their bodies and brains decay. Neuron growth slows, which impedes learning. Lifespan is curtailed. Obesity rates increase.
If we stop mistreating laboratory animals, though, new research might be inconsistent with past results. When describing mice, scientists don’t say that deprivation stunts brain development. Instead we write things like, “If a lab is studying the impact of stress on the growth of new neurons, for example, and then it lets mice exercise on a running wheel – which has been shown to spark neuron growth – the study could be jeopardized” (from David Grimm’s recent news article for Science magazine).
We give ourselves a very skewed view of neurology if we let ourselves think that a creature’s normal habits are stimulating neuron growth, rather than admitting that deprivation stops it. For decades, most researchers thought that neuron growth ceased in adults. Even in the 2005 paper demonstrating structural plasticity, the authors wrote that “such changes are only seen in response to external perturbation,” because brain development is sluggish in lab mice housed in normal conditions, i.e. those little cages.
Of course, some scientists do care about the well-being of their furry test tubes. For instance, biologist Daniel Weary, who told Grimm “Our dream is that our animals live a better life with us than if they had never been born.” Animals in Weary’s lab get to touch actual dirt.
Maybe not the highest bar, but the lives of most animals on our planet are worse than if they’d never been born.
Most social animals – like mice, rabbits, and humans – aren’t going to be very happy when they’re housed in isolation. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers loneliness to be a public health crisis, leading to health risks as bad as smoking or obesity.
Unfortunately, most biomedical research is done with research animals amongst whom pervasive loneliness is standard. And our political system gives outsize influence to wealthy corporations that earn more money when people feel lonely.
We shunt humans into jail when we feel that their behaviors are unacceptable for the world at large. Incarceration sends a message: don’t beat your family; don’t steal; don’t sell drugs; don’t take drugs; don’t be late for an appointment with your parole officer; don’t be too poor to pay your court fees. To my mind, some of these offenses are worse than others.
The hope is that either the threat of incarceration deters people from these things, or that the experience of being incarceration cures them of the inclination. (Or a third rationale – that seeing offenders punished will pacify others’ sense of fairness – which seems to encourage the evolution of cooperation, but, like many other evolved behaviors, seems unnecessarily vicious for the modern world.)
Instead, we’re imposing loneliness on people who most need the help of friends and neighbors to turn their lives around. Somebody screws up? We store that person like a lab mouse.
I was recently chatting with somebody who’s done nine months so far for a parole violation – and is still waiting for his court date, which keeps being rescheduled. (He’s already told the judge that he’ll plead guilty, and the prosecutor wanted to send him to rehab, but his PO nixed the deal.)
“It’s a lot better now, in J block. Everybody said, you don’t wanna move from A block, you’ll get no bingo, you’ll get no … I don’t care about any of that. We can look out the window, see people walking on the street.
“I spent almost an hour, the other day, watching this leaf blowing back and forth in the wind. I was staring, thinking I’d say to the judge, ‘you can pile on whatever other charges you want, I’ll still plead guilty, I’ll plead guilty to all of it if you just let me out there to look at that leaf blowing around up close. Just five minutes, just lemme see something!
“In D block, that was the worst. All we could see was the parking garage. On weekends, we’d see nothing, not even cars. So I was starting fights every day. I’d be like, hey, turn the TV to, I don’t know, some channel I don’t even like, just so I can start something with somebody. Cause a fight would at least be something to do.”
His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep. He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?” His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’tsee anymore.” This will be another hard day.
In Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted. The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night. When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.
Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture. All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood. Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.
When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.
In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,
I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty. He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.
Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight. At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep. But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.
Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living. Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.
But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep. If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.
Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.
Wrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well. In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles. They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside. They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy. Instead, they get the jitters.
And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.
“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.
“Congratulations! You’ll get family Christmas after all.”
“Eh, it’s not so great. I’ll be back before New Years.”
“They say I gotta do probation two years. I slip, they’re sending me to prison.”
“Can you do it?”
“Two years? I’m not gonna make it two weeks. Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”
He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances. But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.
I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.
When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.
Whereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …
Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.
The accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.
But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.
On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.
And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …
And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.
The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.
This is their life.
And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.
So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.
No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.
A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.
The first student was white; the latter black.
There’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.
Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.
“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”
(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)
This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”
He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.
“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …
“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”
“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”
His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.
We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.
We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.
Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,