Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a "total institution" that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. "[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . ." It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity. -- Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sherman's Sermon

Friday afternoon, after the 4p count, I was waiting in my room for a visit from my family, but Sherman paid me a visit first.

Sherman is the 51 year old inmate I mentioned in an earlier post who just arrived but has been in prison 19 years, with two years left to go. He is a distinguished-looking, medium-built black man with a shaved head and trimmed white beard.

It was immediately obvious that what he had to say was serious so I braced myself as we looked each other in the eye.

He asked me, "How many TVs do you have in your house?"

I knew this was not going to end well as he was preparing to make a statement about the small, but foolish, scene I had made the previous day about the inmate who had changed the channel.

I mentally went through the rooms in my house and said, "Five."

"How many TVs are in the TV room?"


He then delivered the following message "in love":
This is not your house. In 3 months you are going back to your house and these guys will still be here. This is their home. You don't have anything to do with this place; you are just passing through. Don't be asking questions trying to get to know anybody. They don't have nothing to do with you and you don't have nothing to do with them. Just stay away from the TV room and mind to yourself for 3 months and then go back to your life.

There was more to the "sermon," and we had a little exchange, but that was the essence.

The other inmates, including himself, are citizens of this place; I am just a tourist. This is their house; it is my hotel. And residents don't like visitors acting like residents their first week, especially when they only plan on staying a short while.

Message received.

I feel at times more like an embedded reporter than a fellow inmate. In a sense, my 3 month sentence is less a punishment to me than an irritant to the other inmates. If it was up to them, they'd just as soon I serve my sentence at home. Too bad I couldn't have had them talk to the judge at my sentencing.

Anyway. Thanks Sherman. You're a good man.

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