(One of the first pieces of advice to someone stuck in a deep hole...unable to see anything but darkness around them...stop digging.)
The process of being indicted, pleading, being sentenced and surrendering to go to prison causes many who experience it to go into shock. I am embarrassed to admit this condition lasted for me well into my first year in Beaumont, Texas. (Beaumont is a story for another day but suffice it to say it is considered by "inmates" the worst compound in the entire Bureau of Prisons) I have vague, and sometimes no memories of numerous court dates, decisions, discussions about my fate. (I wish I knew then what I know now, I could have participated more in my fate) When I first got to Beaumont, a number of my roommates (cellies to old style cons) said they wanted to take away my shoelaces and belt at night for fear I wouldn't be viable the following morning.
Everything had been taken from me. My job, career, reputation, and future were wrecked as far as I could tell. You haven't lived until you watch the news-crawl on CNN or MSNBC and there is your name along with the accusation of engaging in a crime which may be the only one worse than what Michael Vick was accused of. My family is left behind in tatters, 2/3 of their income gone...tens of thousands of dollars in debt just for legal fees. (n.b. a complete waste of money)...more day-to-day debt piling up...embarrassed and humiliated and forced to explain actions by their husband or father which to them were inexplicable. People you thought were friends throw you under the bus as fast as they can and with great relish...they always knew there was something wrong with you...they were always suspicious...they weren't that close to you to begin with...some, even at your worst moment, try to use the situation to their advantage. (blackmail anyone?) When all is said and done, the amount of time to be served is less relevant than the damage and ramifications and psychic destruction already reaping their toll.
None of the above is intended to sound like whining or crying or bemoaning poor me. I screwed up...made horrible choices...hurt strangers I didn't know...devastated friends I did know...my ego and pride led this parade of destruction and I have no one to blame but myself. However, that being said, the description of what the process does to the individual is relevant because last night I watched a man taken out of my unit on a gurney after he attempted suicide by cutting his throat. (we don't know if he succeeded or not, and will never be told officially one way or the other)
We were kept outside for quite some time. As I wandered about, snippets of conversation wafted towards me. More than once I heard men admitting they too have had thoughts about suicide at one point or another while in government custody. I am one. Before my disaster became public, it seemed like a good idea to just cease to exist. No one would find out about my stupidity and sins and my family would be spared all the publicity and embarrassment and humiliation. It was a win/win scenario...at least it seemed that way to me because I was still digging and it was getting darker and darker.
The inmate last night had reportedly been seriously depressed almost since the day he arrived. According to rumors, he had been taking meds while outside, meds which were denied to him in here. He was convinced no one, not his family or friends, colleagues or society in general, would forgive him. He had told people he was sure the government would never leave him alone. (not an unrealistic belief considering what we now know about massive data mining and spying) He had a very short time before he was to be released, (in here it is called being short to the door), but the closer he got to leaving, the more it was reported he was scared and despondent and convinced of the hell which awaited him. He had lost all hope.
Hope appears to be something without which we can't function as a society. Hope is what convinces the young to forego immediate gratification and pursue an education, or other avenues aimed at producing a better future, and it is feeling hope-less which convinces so many to engage in behavior which is self destructive...convinced the future holds nothing for them. Hope is why we marry and commit to one person. Hope is what enables us to persevere through the darkest of times knowing there is a dawn coming. Hope is vital to making it through the day.
Losing hope is what tears people and nations apart. Only the hopeless can be recruited to become human bombs. Only the hopeless can be convinced to engage in genocide and persecution. Only the hopeless will think an act of selfishness can be transformed into one of selflessness. The more hopeless a society, the worse of it is. The war on terror is clearly a war between those who feel hopeless and see no future vs. those who believe conditions and environments can improve. The most important metric of our society is not the stock market or the health of the auto or home industries...it's not G.D.P. (Gross Domestic Product) or manufacturing output...it's not even how many newly minted billionaires there are this year. The most important factor determining our national survival is whether or not we and our children have hope.
Despite Attorney General Eric Holder's recent pronouncements, the American prison system, and criminal/justice industry, will not be fixed if a few less people are jailed. If you want people to come out and not commit crime again, they have to emerge with the hope things can be better. This system destroys hope. Once someone is convicted and incarcerated, they lose everything, or think they do. The people who run this system are accessories to the suicide attempt. This person needed psychological intervention...needed possible medication...needed professional help all of which is available in limited amounts if at all in here. He needed reassurance from outside he was till loved and valued. He needed to know after he paid his debt to society he would get another shot at redemption. (unfortunately, the punishment never stops...voting is prohibited, entire professions off-limits, skills and expertise acquired over a lifetime useless, employers refused to hire and church congregations turn their back.)
Why couldn't this man find hope? Despite the inhumanity of this place, many inmates apparently tried to talk to him, counsel him, Dutch-uncle him, pay attention to him. He was a daily reader of scripture and some tried to point out the God of both Hebrew and Christian scripture is a God of hope with a message of reassurance and forgiveness. Nothing seemed to reach him as the drumbeat of hopelessness, composed by those who built this system, drowns out the loudest Amen or Alleluia.
At the end of the day, my love for my wife and children, (and their professed love of me), and the realization I had already hurt them once with my selfishness and out-of-control ego, convinced me I couldn't do it again. This, along with support and love from both friends, and strangers who have become friends...acts of kindness from convicted felons who populate my world these days, helped me to overcome despair and hopelessness. My sin gave way to the epiphany of a forgiving God always willing to welcome a prodigal son back home and a belief second chances is possible.
I am so lucky and blessed and my prayer for this man last night if his attempt fails...he opens himself to the love of his God...this system which failed him miserably becomes more accountable...he comes to realize no sin is too heinous to be forgiven and living a full life is the best way to secure the redemption he seeks. My hope for him is he comes to see his life as a gift and understands there are second and even third acts if one is willing to get up off the floor. We all need hope whether in prison or wherever we are and we only get it by acknowledging we are not in this alone and refusing to let anything or anyone dehumanize us or convince us the future is to be feared rather than anticipated. If I can do it, so can you... I hope.