My colleague sighed. I suppose that’s the right way to begin a scene intended to express relief. It’s presumed the soaked armpits and palpitating heartbeat and the perpetual sense of impending doom will dissipate.
Just the other day, he asked me to attend a sentencing with him. Blessed with a bit of history in the courtroom, I apparently offered the possibility of something stable. My colleague needed the guilty – a nineteen-year old boy – to receive a terminal sentence. The judge spoke quickly – Life without parole.
Over the next sixty years, this teenager will become something less than a man. He will be pale and he’ll eat sloppy piles of un-nutritional foods from metal trays. He’ll be spat upon and he will feel the fear of imminent death. Unrelenting boredom will infect his brain. His black locks will grey and there will come a day when he looks into a shard of glass and catches his limp reflection and sheds tears. He will submit to bedsores and smelly sheets and abject hopelessness. Inside his cell, he’ll post vagaries of contraband upon his walls and work through myriad chess strategies in an attempt to sustain his mental agility. Sunlight will never hit his skin for more than an hour each day. There will be no possessions – other than what the boss allows. Family members will promise to be in touch, and then forget to show up one week, and then another, until they’ve all faded into the darkness of their own lives and left him without a light. He will spend some of his time writing letters for the functionally illiterate inmates who share his bunk and they will thank him with explicit homosexual acts and filthy handfuls of half-smoked cigarettes. He’ll spend weeks of his life in solitary confinement – no blankets, no light, 23-hour lockdown – and the smell of fecal matter will permeate his pores. Terms like “Please” and “Thank you” will disappear from his life. Laughter will become a memory. He’ll learn that the privileged-class logic, which drove him toward intense experiences, is not how one becomes aware of one’s true self, because, in prison, he is going to meet people who have been born into personal tragedy and suffering and the sort of intense despair that makes knowing oneself an excruciating experience. From their cages, the other inmates will brand him, classify him by his skin color, and then watch him to determine his threat level. Is he prey or predator, rapeable or leaderly, reliable or rat? He will develop a ceaseless hyper-vigilance and enter an unremitting state of fight or flight. Later in life, adrenal failure will threaten him. And this is his fate – nothing else – until, on some inconsequential day sixty or so years from now, he dies.
As we leave the courthouse, my colleague leans upon my shoulder. Thanks for being there for me.
I spend my life searching for moments that resonate. On this day, I succeeded.