Friday, June 20, 2008


Dateline: June 11, 2008
Location: deep inside a prison cell in Florida


"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, nobody knows but Jesus..."

One of many things I've learned in prison - a "Revelation," you might say, is that the words of all those songs we sang in church so many years ago float back to the top of my consciousness with a particular relevance to my captivity. Perhaps it is the the recurrence of themes of damnation and salvation, death and rebirth, the battle for dominance of good versus evil, the struggle of hope and faith over surrender and despair, the natural desire to live free, the urge to give voice and express one's feelings, no matter the repression.

So many times I hear a "church song" on the radio in the prison chapel, or in my head, my memories ignite with images, feelings, recollections of times past when we sang those songs ourselves, with the attendant emotions of longing and a sense of loss. Virtually all the faces I see are gone now, long dead and buried, hopefully onward to their just rewards. The angels I hear singing, "I once was lost, but now I'm found,..." which has a particular relevance for many prisoners whose lives were once hopelessly entangled in disorder, but have achieved a focus with a return to religious faith, are not faceless masses, but the ghostly images of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, school mates, friends, and neighbors who impacted my life.

When asked how I imagine Heaven to be, I don't hesitate. I don't see St. Peter or some long-bearded Jehovah on a gold throne with a scepter. I see my grandmother, "Memaw," standing inside the gate patiently waiting for me, two of her beloved dogs, Butterball and Gomez, milling around her feet, holding a fresh-baked blackberry cobbler and saying, "Where have you been, boy? We've been waiting for you for a long time."

I've missed over thirty family reunions, which get progressively smaller each year as more family patriarchs and matriarchs pass on, but the assurance that "one day we'll be together, yes we will,' as Diana Ross sings, (not normally considered a religious inspiration), gives me the additional strength to resist evil and continue to live a forthright life, even in prison.

I've learned it's okay to be weak sometimes, even in prison, to allow the shield to lower, to expose one's self to humanity. In a recent TV show, a group of children singing, "Jesus loves me, this I know, "cause the Bible tells me so...we are weak, but He is strong,..." brought tears to my eyes as thoughts of innocence lost, but hope restored, jolted loose childhood images and recollections. Wiping my eyes, I looked around and saw several hard men wiping theirs, a shared experience not unique under the harshest conditions of imprisonment.

In the artificial prison camp environment of captors and captives, where the captors eagerly slip on the mantels of institutionalized hatred and domination, where sadism rules over weakness, love is often in short supply, a dwindling resource. It becomes difficult to feel and express love in an "appropriate" manner, but one discards the yearning for love at his own risk. When guards threaten to lock up a prisoner or terminate his visit for kissing and embracing his wife or loved one for more than a few seconds, watching the clock's second hand moving as they meet in the visiting park on Saturday, questions inevitably arise. One does not need to be accused of being homophobic to ask why hundreds of high risk prison sex acts are virtually ignored, if not encouraged, while surveillance cameras and a dozen eagle-eyed guards pace the visiting area trying to catch someone touching their loved ones' shoulder or stealing a surreptitious kiss.

"Looking for love in all the wrong places" could be a prison theme song. I am deeply fortunate to feel and experience "the right kind of love," even in prison, and am saddened that so many others are deprived of it.

No comments: