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Life without possibility of redemption

By A Public Defender

I sat in a prison cell yesterday. And not your regular bullpen where they cram in 4 people who’re waiting to go to court. The real deal. Where our clients sleep at night (and often during the day). That of the 60 square foot variety.

There was a bed – a small bed – that was the length of the room. At the foot of the bed a metal toilet, with no cover. Just beyond that the heavy metal door, with a slit for a window. The door was maybe 3 feet wide, if that. At the head of the bed, if you were laying on your right side, you’d be about half a foot away from an ugly metal desk with holes that pretended to be drawers. This could not have been more than a foot long. The bed was flush with one wall. The desk with the opposite.

The bed looked hard, cold and dirty. And that’s it. This particular cell happened to have a window at the head of the bed. A window looking out onto nothing. Any future inhabitant of this particular cell would have it good. It was a single. Across the narrow passageway from this cell was another, identical in every respect except two: it was a double cell and there was no window. (Here’s a post I wrote a while ago about a different take on prisons in a foreign country.)

I didn’t have the courage to ask my escort to have them close the cell door for a minute, locking me in. It was nauseating and claustrophobic enough as it is. Maybe I was having a panic attack, or maybe the air in there was dead, like the spirits of the men that inhabit these cells, but I thought I was going to faint.

I willed myself to stand there, though, for a minute. To look around at the bare walls, the bare desk, the dirty toilet and imagine someone “living” there.

I even briefly closed my eyes and tried to picture myself there, day in and day out, for months, which turned into years, which turned into decades.

Would I survive? How does anyone? Would I give up and stop bathing, shaving, eating? Would I maintain my sanity or would I quickly decompensate? How long would it be before I’d want to kill myself?

Luckily, my stint in a jail cell ended rather quickly. As I stepped out and waited for my escort to guide me to the next location, I peeked into the cell across the way – the double – and it was occupied. Two men, sleeping ramrod straight (for these “beds” are as wide as the human body and no more), in a dark, dingy cell. One lifted his head as I was spying and looked at me. I looked away. I didn’t want to see his lifeless eyes.

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Northern America
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