Letters from a Human Being in a Cage
Aaron was only 17 when he entered the prison system. He turned 30 last December. His release date is not until 2037.
Aaron is not the person he was 13 years go. In spite of that, Aaron has no opportunity to show that he has changed. The system, and those who maintain it, simply do not care whether or not Aaron is reformed.
What follows are Aaron’s words. Only minor editorial changes have been made for readability.
The feeling of being stranded, As if I was abducted by aliens and woke up to a deserted island, has unfortunately somehow become my life. Scratching my head, trying to recall the answers, hopefully I can find one that would resolve my anger of my new reality.
I scream for help in all directions, until my voice dies in the raspy chord. I shoot a flare, start a fire and spin my T-shirt over my head like a helicopter. Nothing, no help, no rescue, no solution, no second half of the movie hero comeback. Is that a ship I see? As rescuers gather me together, wrap me in one of those cool space blankets, one of them turns to me and says, “We’ve been looking …” Cut short midsentence and I’m jolted back into real life from the dreamworld I prefer to attend. I’m still stranded.
I reach into my right pocket in search of hope, or is the word “help”?My heart skips a beat and the feeling of joy flutters over me. My hands send a message to my head saying it recognizes the object it beholds. A phone and a couple of watermelon flavored gum wrappers appear in my hand before me. Eyes wide as saucers as I gaze upon items as if they were treasures lost from the holy Ark.
Power-on the object that beholds endless possibilities, new meaningful connections, and open world conversations. With hope I dial this number, then that number, and the results are both the same. Not permitted. Not allowed. Cut off and closed off to the people of the world. Restricted. The numbers to my mother are punched in as quickly as they flash in my memory. The excitement jumps through me as I hear the phone ring. The sweetest sound of my beloved mother saying “Hello”, as she answers the call. Without hesitation, I say “Hello” back, only to be cut off by a robotic recording telling my mother that this call is from a stranded person on an island, that this call is being recorded, and last but not least will be charged $8 for 30 minutes. Then with an upbeat, sweetest robotic tone, asks if she will except the call.
My stomach growls in protest over the absence of real food substance. The watermelon flavored gum scent snakes itself from the empty wrappers, twirling, dancing and swirling into my hungry nose. In that moment, I’m transported to a time much simpler and joyous. Funny how one moment a piece of wrapper is just an object of trash, and now it has become my beloved machine of time transportation. To fill my guts, I know eat handfuls of dirt and chunks of tree bark. It’s gritty and nasty, and you never “get used to it”, but what are you going to doing when there’s no other option?
I seek out the unknown items that my left pocket might possess. Surprising enough, I find a radio with a pair of earbuds. Feeling uplifted and happy at the mere possibility that this might bring a new experience into my life, or at the least an old familiar sense of normality for a bit. Cross my fingers as I flip the on switch. Static. Nothing but static flows from the only working earbud. Sadly enough, I rock the solo earbud in my ear sitting, listening to the static, as if getting reacquainted with an old friend, not daring to turn it off. Static, the wish-wash white noise has become my sanctuary of solace. It is the only real thing to me at this point.
The loneliness is the worst part. Wishing someone, from somewhere, will break through the static and just speak. Speak tales of hope, something, anything that I can hold onto, a hope in the knowledge that we are going through this together, that everything will be okay. But nothing. No rainbows or streets paved in gold. Memories of girlfriends passed attack my conscious like antibodies to a flu virus, leaving me sick with regrets of not doing more, being more. What wouldn’t I give for one more hug from Amanda, a kiss from Valaria, or an “I love you” from Kristen.
The realization that is just me now on the island comes falling down on my head, squashing my alternate reality I could cartoon anvil. I’m broke down, beat up, and wore out, destined to live out my life stranded to a place they can only ruin me. No help is coming and holding hope will only make you drown in this sea of life.
Peace + Love
The U.S. imprisons more of our citizens than any other country in the world. We have 25% of the world’s prisoners, even though we have only 5% of the world’s population. The U.S. keeps over 2.4 million people behind bars. The percentage of imprisoned U.S. citizens has increased by 500% in the last 30 years.
One of the things I learned about from Aaron was prison lockdowns. If a prisoner kills themselves–not a rare thing apparently–the prison is locked down for weeks. This is the worst time for prisoners. They have to spend 24 hours a day in their cell, and they are only allowed one shower every three days. The following was written by Aaron after one such lockdown.
They Always Ask Why
During the first minutes of being able to breathe the first breath of fresh air coming off a 16 day lockdown, some said, “We were on lockdown because they are tired of the incidents. And they want to know why?” So this intrigued me. How could I ever express something so deep on paper?
How can I express the reason why people kill themselves, OD, stab, fight, use drugs? How can I tell you we are in pain that you feel nothing but indifference towards us. It’s human as well as animal nature to relieve the pain one is feeling. A wolf will chew off its own leg to escape the pain of being confined and trapped in the snare.
How can I express in words the emotion that one feels when he tells his mother and other loved ones that they will die when the last place seeing them alive is in a prison visiting room?
What words can I use to describe the emotion of neverending loss and desertion and expanding separation from our loved ones, when this is the time we need to stay connected with them the most?
How can I express the feelings of strangers looking at you but not seeing you? Like you have become something less than human, not even worthy of eye contact. As others watch us gobble down vending machine gas station food like it is a four-star plate in shock.
How can one dictate to another the death of hopelessness of gaining a second chance? No matter how much I progress, change and accomplish set goals, I will always be judged on my past. No matter how much I change, I will never be able to change the past.
How do you put into words to explain the mixture of rage and despair when one sees a huge sign saying “Grand Opening” on the new building that is used to kill us?
How do you describe the frustration of wanting to do good, but are rarely given the opportunities. Or the anxiety that transforms into anger from dealing with psych patients and those who have yet to become conscious enough to change themselves?
My only true question that I seek to find the knowledge to understand is this: How do you justify putting another human being in a cage with no real intentions or efforts to try to help reform them, but simply left to their own devices, full of false hope, slim future prospect and told to navigate through a psych ward daily, while expecting us not to do bad?
I admit, when I first heard about Aaron, I wondered what he had done to be in prison. For some reason, this seemed like the most important question. I think I needed some justification for Aaron’s imprisonment, so I could go back to not thinking about it. I even went so far as to look up what Aaron had done. But it didn’t make me feel any better, because I couldn’t reconcile my image of the person who committed that crime with the image of Aaron which was forming in my mind as I read his words.
The more I read what Aaron wrote, the more I realized that “What did he do?” is the wrong question. The right question is “Who is he?” Who is Aaron? Not who was he 13 years ago? Who is he now? If we are going to try to justify someone being locked in a cage, shouldn’t that be the question? Not what did they do in the past? But who are they today?
Cages come in all different sizes. Some are big and hold tigers. Others are small and stop birds from flying. My cage is built from three concrete walls and a set of steel bars. It’s the size of someone’s small bathroom, and like all cages, it has a slot for food.
Some people say that the mind can be free while the body is locked away. Hold on while I pick up my imaginary phone and call bullshit. I believe that is just a human method and way of dealing with being trapped in a cage. Let’s face it, your mind can drift away to dreamland as much as it wants. When you blink and come back to your physical self, it’s still behind bars.
People claim there is a lower self and a higher self, a battle between good and bad on the moral scale of standards. I believe they overlooked or forgot to add the category of the animal self. I can understand why they made this mistake. One has to live a life in a cage to get it.
As a dog confined in a cage will bark fiercely when they see a person and then whimper and cry when they go out of sight, I have become that animal, for I now know what they are going through. The wide range of the emotional kaleidoscope: hell’s rage to the sadness of a broken heart, the loneliness of complete isolation to the thoughts of suicide, from the deepest despair. A pit of endless hopelessness that swallows men whole like a sinkhole, placed upon the shoulders of broken humans to bear. Human dignity stripped away and lost like smoke in the air.
Is a human being meant to be placed in the cage, locked away day upon days? Have I been downgraded and reclassed to some sort of weird animal status? Or has this cage brought the animal to the surface, with the rage I now feel? Has my cage transformed my humanity to animality, or is that a story they spin to justify the means to the action? When I flip on Animal Planet, will I see myself in caged habitat? Or will I flip on MSNBC’s”lockup” to compare another caged life with my own.
The new exhibit and slideshow. Come see the tactics to break the human. Push-Paul-Bend-Snap. Minds break and the animal self flows. Tiers upon tiers of cages filled with damaged human souls, transforming into animals as a prison industry growth. No reform for us. Just time in our cage to reflect and grow into our new animal ways.
Don’t get me wrong. Some truly belong here. But what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. True testament from myself: time in a cage can help transform and change a life. But there is a truth of too much of something can be a bad thing. Harm comes after the help of a changed life, once self reformed and reborn into a new person. The end result is still the same: locked away and endless time in my cage.
Some people question then what’s the point, and end up taking own life. Where is the second chance, the fruit of my labor of change? The raw truth is nobody cares and I have become that dog placed back into the cage.
The prison administrators have recently changed how the prisoners receive their mail. When they receive a letter for a prisoner, the prison now copies the letter and gives the copy, not the original, to the prisoner. This might seem like an insignificant thing, but it’s not. Because they only get a photocopy, the prisoners can no longer feel the paper that their loves one’s touched, no longer trace the penstrokes their parents or their children made. They can no longer smell an old familiar smell from an aunt or grandmother’s house or the perfume sprayed on the paper by a girlfriend or a wife. It’s just one more barrier placed between them and the rest of us.
If you would like to write a letter to Aaron, you can scan it and email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will see that it is delivered to Aaron.
My gratitude to Pete O’Day, who shared Aaron’s letters with me. Pete helps facilitate a Buddhist mediation group at a prison where he met Aaron.
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.
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