Imprisonment–More Punishing than You Might Think

Keystone Pipeline Protest at Environmental Resource Management

One recent evening, I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner and feeling very happy.  Yes, the activity was mundane, but I was where I’d chosen to be, doing what I’d chosen to do.  And my surroundings were so pleasant–my inviting kitchen opening onto a colorful living room adorned with plants, and the summer night sounds coming in through the open window.  

All of this suddenly felt SO precious to me, SO different from the day before, which I’d spent mostly in jail.  There, in a holding cell at a Washington, DC police station, I felt trapped, locked into a very cold room, with no natural light, only a cement slab for furniture, no access to reading, writing, food, or a glimpse of the outside.  

The moment I heard that door lock shut from the other side, my stomach clenched.  The freedom I had always taken for granted suddenly vanished.  It didn’t matter where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do.  It frightened me to  realize that I was at the mercy of a large, impersonal system made up of strangers.  When I could leave was up to them, and they could treat me kindly or cruelly, as they chose.  My ability to make choices had been taken away.

But unlike other prisoners in that jail, I and the 53 others with whom I’d been arrested had chosen to be there.   We had knowingly put ourselves at odds with the law by committing an act of civil disobedience.  We had occupied the Washington office of a global corporation that had committed fraud in an attempt to get a go-ahead for the Keystone XL pipeline.  So concerned were we about the impact the pipeline would have on climate that we were willing to sacrifice to stop the project.

There, in that dreary cell, when I wasn’t talking with my two cellmates or doing jumping jacks to keep warm, I had plenty of time to reflect.  My thoughts naturally turned to my longtime penpal Pam, who has been living in a Texas prison for the last 20 years.  Given my current situation, my sympathy for Pam’s plight suddenly intensified.  How does Pam bear the loss of so many of life’s simple freedoms, I wondered?  She cannot call a friend, visit the library, or take a walk.  She can never see the stars at night, nor can she decide when to take a shower or go to bed.  

The loss of freedom is truly a profound loss.  

But I know from Pam’s letters that the prison system does not stop with curtailing inmates’  freedom.  The system goes out of its way to inflict unnecessary suffering, simply because it has the power to do so.  Pam has told me of many abuses to which she is subjected.  For example, the  drinking water available to her sometimes contains visible dirt.  Her precious dictionary was confiscated for no apparent reason.  And she must pay for the medications she needs, even though she has no way to earn money.

I too felt abused, even though my stay in jail was so short.  We shivered in our cells, and the authorities had taken away my sweater.  When I told the guard we were cold and asked if they could lighten up on the air conditioning, he looked at me incredulously and answered with a laugh, “You want it warmer in here?  This is jail!”  And apparently the DC jail is not the only place where temperature is used as a tactic of abuse.  California prison authorities, I’d been told, recently got back at hunger-striking prisoners by lowering the temperature in their cells to the 40s.

Another form of abuse that seems especially painful to me is needless deprivation of  the natural world.  When a Super Max prison was built in Virginia’s beautiful Big Stone Gap some years back, all the windows were soaped, to ensure that the prisoners could not look out on a gorgeous mountain landscape.

Our justice system sometimes goes out of its way to humiliate prisoners.  Pam has told me that where she is, certain guards routinely subject black inmates to racist insults.  While Pam has the option to file a complaint about such treatment, she knows that the result would be retaliation.  And once when she had to go to a hospital, she was transported in chains, on a bus where the only toilet was in full view of the guards transporting her.  She felt greatly humiliated having to enter the hospital in shackles. 

I got my own taste of humiliation at our arraignment in court several weeks after our time in jail.   Even though our ‘crime’ gave no reason to suspect drug use, we nonetheless had to pee into a cup in front of a guard.  And it seemed that everyone appearing in court that day, whatever the charge, was subjected to that same indignity.

As the 54 of us await our upcoming second court appearance for the same ‘crime,’ I continue to think about the abuses and humiliations that seem so integral a part of prison.   Are people improved by such treatment?  Will it make them more constructive members of society when their sentence is up?

How I wish that US prisons were more like the prisons of Sweden, where inmates are treated more respectfully.  My friend Al Bronstein, founder of ACLU’s Prison Project, has visited prisons in other countries, and he told me about how different it is for prisoners in Sweden.  There, they continue to have some choice in their lives.  For example, in Swedish prisons, the prisoners cook for themselves.  They form groups that plan menus, order groceries, prepare meals, and clean up.

Swedish prison officials seem to understand that if prisoners are to function successfully after their release, they must remain connected with the outside world while in prison.  Swedish prisoners do not lose their right to vote.  And many of them maintain a lively interest in local and national elections, actively campaigning in prison for particular candidates and holding forums where issues are debated. 

I know that prisons are important, in order to keep certain people from harming the rest of us and to provide a disincentive to commit crime.  But the loss of liberty inherent to prison is sufficient to achieve prison’s legitimate goals.–April Moore




8 Responses to “Imprisonment–More Punishing than You Might Think”

  1. sandra rose Says:

    April, that is one of the most “stirring” pieces you have written. I , too, shudder at the thought of being imprisoned. Certainly my claustrophobia would be exacerbated to an uncontrollable level. The sheer terror of being forgotten would warp me bringing up questions of “what if” my family were in trouble, what if there were a death? Imagine being imprisoned during a natural catastrophe being completely helpless to help yourself and wondering about your family. One could expand on these thoughts endlessly, slowly going in sane.

    I honestly think about how much of what happens to us is just that, happenstance. Wrongly accused, wrongly identified, circumstantial evidence that places us at crime scene,are very real possibilities as the Innocence Project has shown. And yet we take our freedom and good luck so very for granted. We have probably all experienced the total, authoritarian power of the NSA at airports (the Israelis do no such searches and are very casual, in fact, about airport security- who would guess?) I resent it terribly.

    I have always said,”Life is a big banana peel; we can slip at any moment”.

    Thanks for making me take a moment to ponder my personal freedom and the precious, natural world that sustains my sanity.

  2. James Says:

    “(I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be) Free”

    I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
    I wish I could break all the chains holding me
    I wish I could say all the things that I should say
    Say ‘em loud say ‘em clear
    For the whole wide world to hear

    I wish I could share
    All the love that’s in my heart
    Remove all the bars that keep us apart
    And I wish you could know how it is to be me
    Then you’d see and agree that every man should be free

    I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
    How sweet it would be if I found I could fly
    Well I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
    And I’d sing cos I know how it feels to be free

    I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
    I wish I could break all the chains holding me
    And I wish I could say all the things that I wanna say
    Say ‘em loud say ‘em clear
    For the whole wide world to hear
    Say ‘em loud say ‘em clear
    For the whole wide world to hear
    Say ‘em loud say ‘em clear
    For the whole wide world to hear

    One love one blood
    One life you’ve got to do what you should
    One life with each other
    Sisters, brothers

    One love but we’re not the same
    We got to carry each other Carry each other
    One One One One One…

    I knew how it would feel to be free
    I knew how it would feel to be free

  3. Gail saul Says:

    Prison reform. What an audacious thought!!! Am curious what you think of th sheriff in Arizona who is the basis of many emails for his version of reform. While not of his political persuasion I still find myself cheering his actions. Then wondered what his reaction would be to civil disobedience such as what you did. I cheered for you and envy your opportunity for being at the right place at right time. The
    N I think of white color crime costing billions and perpetuators sitting I millionaire jail. Reform is a must. I lean towards the sheriffs method I think.

  4. Lena Says:

    Wow, April. Somehow I missed this episode in your life. Thanks for reminding us that the freedom to get a sweater is sometimes sacrificed to curtail the freedom to destroy the environment. It’s kind of ironic, actually: Keystone to pipe Canadian oil sands bitumen intended to keep US folks (but not prisoners) warm. Hugs and hats off to you.

  5. Jonah Says:

    Being arrested for civil disobedience is one of the most honorable things I know of that a person can do. Somehow it makes me think that as dreadful as the world of officialdom gets, as long as there are people willing to sacrifice for truth in this way, we have a chance. At the same time we need more awareness about the enormous corruption and waste that distinguishes the US prison-industrial complex. You achieved a “double mitzvah” in this, April. Many thanks.

  6. Sandra Parson Says:

    I suffered arrest at the hands of a gun go police officer who sneered at my Hispanic middle name, esperanza. In jail where it was decidedly cold on a cold October day when they took my sweater. What possible reason was there to take my sweater except to make me suffer further indignities? They took your sweater. They made you pee into a cup without cause just because they could. I feared they would do a cavity search. I spit on this system of oppression.

  7. Jan Elvin Says:

    April, thank you for both writing this piece and for your dedication to your beliefs. I’ve spent a lot of time inside prisons for work for the Prison Project, but never heard the cell door clank behind me, thank God. It’s especially poignant that you experienced this right at the time of the anniversary of the March, since Dr. King taught us the value of peaceful civil disobedience. It’s an important subject to shed light on.
    I have to say about Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio – he’s a corrupt, abusive, ineffective publicity hound who is a disgrace to law enforcement. It’s well-documented. Given his bizarre abuse of prisoners, he’s probably got mental problems. And he’s a birther!
    Anyway, I’m proud to know you, April. You really walk the walk.

  8. Anne Nielsen Says:

    April, just read your report from jail, and was struck dumb at the difference between your experience and that of a 50 year old male friend who was arrested at the same event. They were all (about 42 men) locked up together in a holding cell, reported no real discomfort, and cheered each other with songs and helpful exchanges. Is this yet another example of how Virginia gov’t views women in general, and strong women in particular?

Leave a Reply

Home | About | Blog | Contact | Newsletter

Earth Connection is proudly powered by WordPress
Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).