I have been hanging out at the bedside of dying people for about 15 years now. Every time I tell someone who doesn’t also do that work they say, “I could never do that.”
I’ve never believed this, but I know that they believe it. What I also know is that the reason they think they can’t do it is because they’re not at all interested (most of us aren’t, really) in considering that the person in the bed will be them someday. This person, who is being forced by circumstance, disease, age, or injury to consider themselves and their lives deeply and without escape is showing them something about themselves.
I notice a lot of parallels to this resistance in the world beyond end of life care. This resistance to honestly bearing witness to all of our layered messiness.
I have listened to true crime podcasts for years now, particularly those that do their best to cover the “whole” story, including the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators. I am not immune to the sensationalism, but my deepest wish in my almost obsessive listening is to know humans. I want to know what can be known about why we behave the ways we do, particularly at those times we wish we could take back.
Ear Hustle (thank you for the tip, Rebecca Sturgeon) is another source of such unvarnished peeks into humanity. The show is produced and broadcast from inside San Quentin prison, by inmates of the prison. The stories are written and spoken by prisoners. I listen not to inmates, but to fellow humans who happen to live inside San Quentin. They miss opening a refrigerator. They miss moonlight and softer-than-scratchy sheets. They want what we all want. And they wanted all of those things when they did whatever they did that landed them in jail. They even did some of those things in a desperate attempt to keep the things we all cherish.
They are like the humans that live inside all jails and prisons and all over the “worst” and “best” parts of our entire planet.
But we're convinced they're nothing like us.
In 2018, I had the opportunity to tour the Arlington County Detention Facility (ACDF), a 12-story building that houses nearly 500 male and female inmates. I was deeply curious about how medical care goes down in a jail and particularly, chronic and serious illness care. When the conversation turned to dialysis, I will be forever grateful to my friend, a Major in the Sherriff’s office, for kindly setting me straight about something so important.
That day, in the jail’s clinic, pure ignorance and some serious unconscious bias led me to ask why prisoners would be offered dialysis at all. My fractured reasoning led me to wonder why we would prolong the life of a “criminal.” My friend said, so matter-of-factly, “Their punishment is incarceration. The jail is not designed to amplify punishment. We take good care of them.”
I was dumbstruck.
Incarceration is its own punishment. Dert. Of course it is.
While the long history of jails and penitentiaries is a scary one and plenty of modern-day horrors still take place, the lofty modern day goal of these institutions is to care for their charges and return them to society. Improved. Penitent, even. It had never occurred to me that the prison system is not actually intended to exact punishment in specific ways in addition to the punishment that is so clearly inherent in isolation, separation and public castigation.
I was gobsmacked by the sheer volume of my ignorance. It continued to cascade over me in the following weeks. Society had taught me to think of inmates as something other than people. They were property. They were a problem. They were “to be dealt with.” They were “not me.”
Shortly after that visit to the jail, my partner and I have been volunteering with an organization called Offender Aid and Restoration offering an (almost) weekly (sometimes the guys are in “lockdown” and we can’t meet) mindfulness and meditation group for a select group of inmates called the “Community Readiness Unit (CRU).”
Before COVID, we would go inside the jail, sign in, use a special code to ride the elevator up to the 9th floor to “the unit.” The deputy would buzz us through a series of incredibly heavy, impenetrable doors that would rattle our bones as they slammed behind us. Then the deputy would check our badges, confirm our names and bellow, “Females on the unit!!” We would sit down with this group of 5-15 guys, in a circle of sorts, just feet away from each other, and we would talk. Sometimes about anger. Sometimes about vulnerability. Sometimes about racism. We share jokes. We share frustrations. They also talk about their kids and their dogs and their brothers and sisters and moms and dads.
Since COVID hit, we have been doing our sessions virtually. It is not the same, but that’s another story.
The CRU is a self-selecting group of guys who are expected to be released within the following 12 months or less. The group changes over time as guys get released and new guys come into the program, but these are people who are just doing their best. The CRU guys are not violent murderers, but they have caused a lot of pain to themselves, their families and the world at large through just about every other crime you can imagine.
They want another chance. They know they have caused pain. They try not to feel it, but they know it. This is not the life they thought they’d be living, but here they are.
It’s easy to forget, when you’re not face-to-face with the real humans who made these mistakes, that an endless river of crimes was perpetrated on them long before they saw the inside of a jail.
Crime creates and is created by an endless ripple of hurt. Virtually without fail, the perpetrators of the crimes that landed these people; these humans that I now know by name in jail come from a long line of abuse, neglect, indifference, violence, the effects of systemic racism and poorly-conceived world views. Sometimes these “learnings” were handed down from people who were supposed to love them, sometimes they were just simmered in a soup of it in their poverty-stricken, or insanely wealthy, but just as dangerous neighborhoods. And that says nothing of the number of incarcerated people who would be better served by quality mental health services.
All of this. Every single shred. It comes from our individual unwillingness and straight up fear about our own shadows.
I have been lucky. There has not yet been a confluence of events where danger, scarcity and desperation have come together at the right moment to leave me with nothing to call on but my shadow. Nothing to do, but commit what society will call a crime. But I don’t delude myself. When I read about a murder or a rape or a kidnapping, I don’t pretend that I could never do that.
None of us can reasonably claim that preemptive exoneration.
I wish I could, but I can’t. I could say, “I hate it so much that I could be that person who is in jail for murder.” I could say, “Sometimes I really do think about murder. I hope I can stay this side of impulse.” I could even say, “That’s not the kind of person I want to be.” And if you asked 9 out of 10 inmates, they would tell you that they used to say similar things, but now they say them in jail.
None of the “bad” in this world is perpetrated by people who are “worse” than you or me. We must look, with open eyes, at the incredible lineage of pain and hurt to which every single one of us are unwilling and often unwitting heirs. The playing field gets pretty damned level when we look at our lives this way. Sure, plenty of us have had bad things happen in our lives and maybe even things we think are worse than those that have happened to some people we call criminals. We say, “See? I didn’t make those choices. I rose above it.”
What if we start saying, “So far.” after these self-assured declarations?
We hate the possibility that the shadow, that deep, hidden, unwelcome part of ourselves could, ya know, come out of the shadows. The hierarchy of good people and bad people and punishment and freedom is so much easier and so much more effective at making us feel safe.
When we kill people to punish them to exact something we want to call justice, it’s about distance. It’s about perceived safety… and comfort. From ourselves.
For each person who doesn’t want to think about the hair’s breadth that separates my “good” life from that of the people who “deserve” to die, there is a person who can tell you all about the places where they ran out of options. Where they made a choice they never thought they’d make.
When we feel confident that a “criminal” should die for their crime, we sit comfortably, having read a written description of a glimpse in time during which a heinous act or even many heinous acts were committed. We put distance between ourselves and this act immediately. We watch the perpetrator’s face in court and decide they have no remorse. We make assumptions about their associates or their upbringing. We do whatever we can to make ourselves feel safely “better than.”
We don’t wonder or give any weight to the suffering in the life of the perpetrator or to the suffering endured by their parents and their parents’ parents. We just want them out of our sight. Out of our awareness. We are thankful for what we don’t understand is an unsubstantiated belief that we’ll “never be in a situation like that;” one that would find us incarcerated.
If you want to hold a strong belief about “criminals” and who “deserves” freedom and second chances, do a little homework first. And keep a mirror close at hand.
Become a penpal (see below).
Read or watch something from a prisoner’s perspective (see below).
Do this for a while and then tell me how clear you feel about what’s right and what’s wrong and who’s good and who’s bad.
A Prisoner’s Perspective – The Redemption of a Criminal Mastermind by Mike Savage
Sentenced to Science: One Black Man’s Story of Imprisonment in America by Allen Hornblum
Life After Life (documentary)
Ear Hustle and other prison podcasts. You’ll have to hunt around, but you’ll find there are a variety.