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Truth and beauty in Prison

Posted by Priscilla on November 13, 2013

prison.jpgThe first time I went to prison, I was fifty-four. I’m not sure what I expected. Maybe spiffy armed guards standing stiffly by remote controlled doors. Maybe gleaming tile walls whose smooth surfaces offered no handholds for escapees. Or maybe I expected respect for the outsider, the good person.

The prison is tired, as if it must sigh and gather its strength to greet me. Its age shows. The walls are gray. The guard’s desk is gray. The lockers are gray. Into one locker goes my phone. And my book. Then my belt. Finally, I take off my sweater with metal buttons, stuff it on top of the belt and slam the door.

I sit down on the gray plastic chair in a sea of grey plastic and wait. I wait for guards to go down to the cells. I wait for my number to come up, for my name to be called. In prison we all wait. The prison doesn’t care that I, or you, or anyone else, readers all, cannot wait without reading. They care only for protocol. The prison doesn’t care that time passes. The guard ignores the clock. He is bored, but cannot work up enough energy to look at his list and cross off names as those ahead of me are called.

The others are used to this.  They sit, sullen, heads down. Some sleep. I watch my shoes, trying to read their shape. I wait some more.

Three hours are gone forever before my name is called.

I follow two others into a small room.

“Hold out your hands.” It is not a request. The guard passes a blue light over and under each hand, looking for drug residue.

I pass.

“Down the hall with him.” He nods toward door. The new guard is tall and muscular, as if he works out daily at Planet Fitness.

This walk is longer, down a green linoleum covered hall. The Green Mile, I think. Our walk ends in another corridor crowded with machines. Scanning machines. The line to pass the security checkpoint is long and I wonder where the people have come from. Are they travelers from another city, transferring planes?

“Over here.” I do not argue with the female guard for she is both younger and taller than I.

“Lift up your shirt.”

“Pull out the bottom of your bra.”

“Shake it.”

“Unzip your pants and push them down past your hip bone.”

I stare at the gray wall. This is no airport security checkpoint, I remind myself. I’m in prison. Prison.

The guard finds no contraband on me, so waves me on into the large room where inmates in blue jumpsuits ring the walls. I’m inside now. I look to my left. Behind the plexiglass window is an orange suited inmate. Non-violent here. Violent over there. The plexiglass looks strong, at least.


What does this mean for the writer?

I’ve been thinking about truth and beauty lately. I want more than anything to open reader’s hearts to truth and beauty. But what is truth? What constitutes beauty? Right answers? Obvious thoughts? Do they lie on the surface, waiting for us to pick them up as we dash by? Are they only in the picturesque?

Some would have it so. Don’t write that, they say. It’s too depressing. It gives me the creeps. It doesn’t honor this person or that person.

Can I write about a visit to prison without the ugliness? The hopelessness? What about writing about my hometown? Must I ignore the darkness?

I think not. For I know this about beauty: it takes the shadows to reveal the depth. It takes the ugly to highlight the good.

And I know this about truth: it is never easy, uncomplicated, or one-dimensional. Easy answers are so often false. Un-shaded opinions are so often empty.

Sweetness and light are not obvious in a visit to prison, but if I reveal fatigue and futility through a portrayal of this bleak prison scene, perhaps I can capture a truth of the human heart. That desperation underlies every promise, yes, but that fruitfulness can rise out of every inadequacy.

What do you think?



Posted by Susan on
What does Leonard Cohen say? "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in"
Posted by Priscila on
What a great quote. It takes me deeper into considering the power of death in life.
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