An eye for an eye has been realized.
Every horror that has ever been wished on convicted felons by those of us in civilized society reveals itself in prison.
I saw it for myself on my visit to Florida State Prison in Raiford. I heard it in the stories told by the Deacon who goes several times a week to minister to the imprisoned.
They have committed horrible crimes, and for that they are punished in a way that seems inhumane and unfathomable.
This may please you. This may comfort you. This may somehow validate your righteousness or your sense of justice.
I entered into a concrete world of razor wire, metal bars, shackles, bolts and locks. There is a tower guard with a gun perched high at the entrance. There are gates that open and close intuitively and imposingly. I didn’t go very far without encountering another gate, making me ever aware that I am going farther and farther from the life I know into the cavernous depth of depravity.
In the vast oversized hallway, I felt conspicuous walking under the fluorescent lights, my dark clothes meant to make me look drab and androgynous popped like a gun against the monochromatic beige walls and floors.
I thought of how much time I had spent putting together that outfit. My mom even went shopping to find me something appropriate. Ah, but the tables had turned, what she picked showed a thin horizontal line of flesh that I refused to reveal. Instead, I chose a gray linen shirt in the shape of a box from her closet. I wore another shirt under it and a sweater on top.
I thought, irrationally, of how those soft layers of cotton were designed to shield me like armor from prying eyes. I tied my hair haphazardly in a bun. I wore no jewelry, except my wedding band and no makeup. I looked perfectly hideous, like some homely girl living in a commune, the dubious choice of her polygamous husband.
On the hour-long drive that morning, the Deacon told stories of redemption, forgiveness, and God’s love that he had witnessed ministering to inmates.
He also shared horrors that made me lurch in my seat and grab his arm, surprising us both with my grip — my desperate attempt to stop the cruel reality of his words.
The Deacon told me of one prison fight with a head rolling into the prison hallway.
He told me about one inmate who had surgery for a brain tumor and was back in his cell the following day. The prisoner was in extraordinary pain, and wasn’t given any painkillers until he intervened with officials.
Oh, and all those jokes about prison rapes, I think maybe it’s not funny to the prisoner who is now HIV positive from the repeated brutality of forced sex.
Men exist in 6 by 9 foot cells. They shower every other day and only go outside a few times a week. When they do, they remain completely fenced in a sort of dog run.
These are adult men sustained on 1,500 calories of food, which is justified by their sedentary existence.
These are men who can’t flush their own toilets.
These are men who are at the mercy of the guards who decide if and when the lights will turn on or turn off within their individual cell.
These are men who live without air-conditioning or heat.
I can’t compare it to anything because I’ve never seen anything like it. After all, these are humans seemingly no different from us, but living in cages.
Intellectually, I knew that going in. Conversely seeing it made it somehow unbelievable.
Maybe it’s not as bad in jails or other correctional facilities, but prison and my walk on death row were sobering.
I never aspired to go to death row either – that wasn’t part of my plan. Yet there I was trying to be inconspicuous, when the Deacon suddenly shouted FEMALE WALKING, down the quiet hall. I snapped in a whisper, “why did you do that?” The Deacon explained it was to make sure the prisoners were all decent. Perhaps, I am not the only with a sense of modesty, as I assumed.
Most of the inmates were sleeping or otherwise in the dark except for the broken light the jalousie windows mercifully permitted. They were snug in their cell and we were separated by another row of bars more than an arms-length beyond that. I walked face-forward with my eyes straining sideways to catch glimpses. Most of them seemed disinterested in being part of the freak show and ignored us.
At the very end of the row, the last two cells had their lights on and we stopped to talk. The Deacon introduced them as his friends. One of them had been in prison 32 years, the other 20 years. I had to wonder if they were completely different people now that a generation had passed.
I hoped so.
The inmate spoke about the letters he writes to pen pals and the marriage proposals they initiate. He told us how his oldest son has disowned him. We talked briefly about God. The guard stood behind us looking a little impatient with all our do-gooding and niceties.
Mostly, I liked the prisoner. He was socially appropriate, engaging, and seemed sincere.
Later, I learned he drowned a 10-year-old girl.
So began my vacillating between feeling incredibly compassionate for their incomprehensible lack of freedom and dignity, to conflicting and valid justifications for their punishment.
No doubt, these life-takers have to be restrained from society. Even within the confines of prison, there occasionally was need for further constraints.
We visited a wing referred to by the letter Q. In it prisoners were held in a cell inside of another cell, an extra layer of concrete insulation between them and the other inmates.
A large dry erase board hung on the wall with prisoner names and the corresponding reasons for their relegation to such extreme confines. It was a checkerboard of violations that zigzagged between attacks on guards, to murdering other inmates.
Clearly, these people needed caging. That’s not a judgment. That is a brutal reality.
I don’t forget for a second what got them in there either. To be sure, when I went home I went on-line and looked up some of the death row inmates that are warehoused at Florida State Prison. I read news articles about their senseless crimes. I sat quietly and thought about their victims and their families.
I compared it to the misery I saw in prison. There was no mercy on either side, no matter how many ways I looked.
The injustice of murder, the depravity of torture, the senseless disregard for life, the endless grieving of victims’ families, these were not things I could forget.
Undoubtedly, these people don’t deserve to live in our society. They made that choice through their actions. I can’t own that for them. That can’t be risked for everyone else.
Yet as someone who values life, dignity and decency, as someone who spoke with these men, shared the Eucharist with them, prayed with them, shook their hands, listened and laughed with them, I can’t celebrate the fact that they live in a state-manifested hell.
Why would a Christian celebrate hell?
Maybe prison can be best described as purgatory – a holding place suspended between the choices of good and evil. The incarcerated are the only ones who can choose the salvation that God offers all of us.
The experience forces me to acknowledge that evil exists and as badly as I want to have hope for every single person incarcerated, as much as I want to believe that when given the choice of forgiveness that God offers, which even the state cannot take away, they would pick the generous gift of redemption every time.
But even I am not that naïve.
By far, the saddest part of my experience was seeing an elderly lady waiting in the prison foyer who best emulated God’s unconditional love.
She looked far prettier than I did.
She had carefully applied bright pink lips and a rosy shade of blush dusting both sides of her cheeks as if she was somehow applying the dew of happiness to her face instead of merely drugstore makeup. She wore dainty jeweled barrettes, which held back parts of her soft grey hair.
Even though I looked as asexual as an amoeba that day, I recognized the effort she put into her appearance for her visit.
The Deacon knew her and began talking to her about her incarcerated son, and remarked kindly that he was a good boy. As I watched her face twist in uncertainty and gratitude, all those shades of pink contorting until tears filled her eyes, my heart sank as the message of the Deacon’s words contrasted sharply with the reality of his imprisonment.
She nodded affirmatively despite the circumstances. Of course, her son was good because she knew him with a mother’s love. How crushing it must be for her to know how different the world sees him, to know the child she gave life unmercifully took it from someone else.
Later when we were in the visiting area, I saw her with her son. He seemed like a shell of a person. His eyes were gray and glossed over. I wasn’t quite sure if they ever focused.
When we talked to them, I learned that she drives 300 miles each way every week just to visit him.
Whatever he did, she still loves him.
In one of the news articles about the death row inmates that I read, another mother had just learned her daughter’s killer was sentenced to death. She commented that her daughter would be dancing in heaven at the verdict.
While I would never begrudge anyone the joy of a dance, when I think of these two mothers and the loss they both endure, I feel nothing but sorrow.
Maybe they won’t all be saved, but the same can be said of people on the outside.
So, I remember the old lady and her pink cheeks. I picture her in a matching pink dress, cocooned in layers of tulle dancing in heaven with her son not as the world knew him, but as she did — not as a murderer, but a child of God redeemed by salvation.
May their dance last for eternity.