A prisoner's story of finding compassion on the inside.
After thirteen days inside a cell, all I wanted to do when I got outside was look up at the blue sky. It would have been nice to enjoy a passing cloud, a bird in flight, or the wind rustling through the trees on a distant hill. But I was one of more than a hundred inmates—for us, looking up was forbidden.
We had our hands cuffed behind our backs, and for every pair of us there was a tactical team member dressed in riot gear, carrying a heavy stick. “Keep your eyes on the ground,” these tact members barked as we filed out of the cell house. Then, outside, we were escorted through a gauntlet of even more tact members who were stomping a black-booted march all the way to the chapel at the far end of the institution.
Just ahead of me I could hear the labored breathing of my fifty-eight-year-old celly as he half shuffled, half limped along, trying to keep up with the line. I could only imagine the pain he was in, forced as he was to keep his eyes glued to the ground despite a broken neck for which the institution had done nothing in the past five years except give him ibuprofen and a neck brace. Would he actually make the walk to chapel? And what if he didn’t? Would he be dragged off to the side of the line or left where he lay for the rest of us to step over? There was no telling.
Once we were inside the chapel, the tact team officers led us single file into the main auditorium and into our waiting seats. Then they bellowed at us to sit back—a particularly sadistic thing to order, because leaning against the backrest meant the steel cuffs binding our wrists dug mercilessly into our flesh. Since the cuffs had not been double-locked, I quickly realized that as powerless as I was to loosen them, it was regrettably easy to tighten them if I sat back too fast. “Look at your feet,” the officers barked again.
For the next thirty-five or forty minutes we sat there uncomfortably, with the chapel fans pointed away from us and toward the clusters of officers. Within minutes my shirt was soaked through with sweat. The poor guy next to me was so badly off that he was trying to wipe his eyes with a raised knee—an exercise in acrobatics that did not go unnoticed by the officers who belted out an order for him to “sit the fuck back!”
Several thoughts rolled through my head. First was the fact that none of us being put through this ordeal had actually done anything to warrant it. The Department of Corrections was simply grandstanding in response to an incident for which those responsible had long since been taken to segregation or transferred out of the institution.
The second thing I thought—which I often think at times like this—was that, whether I directly deserved it or not, the very fact that I’d committed a crime that landed me behind bars meant I’d have to go through things like this from time to time. Like it or not, this was part of the life I had earned for myself. Welcome to karma.
And lastly, I thought about how I had an obligation to live what I had earned as fully as I could. At the moment, it happened to be rather difficult. So I decided to sit with the difficulty, opening myself as fully as possible to my situation, whether that was the numbness growing in my fingers due to the cuffs, or the almost jovial banter of the officers as they picked several inmates out of the crowd for a strip search, or the groans, coughs, and covert attempts at shifting positions that everyone was making around me.
The irony of being forced to sit motionless in the chapel with my eyes cast down to a spot on the floor was not lost on me. Without the cuffs and with a bit of shifting, I could have been sitting in lotus position. I quickly realized, in fact, that my years of meditation practice were making this exercise in “sitting” far more tolerable for me than it otherwise would have been.
I found myself empathizing with the plight of those around me who hadn’t had the benefit of practice, and I was once again reminded that the pain and suffering of others is my pain and suffering as well. None of us is separate from any other, which means we can’t separate ourselves from each others’ trials and afflictions either.
The question was, what could I possibly do in my present state to ease the suffering I was privy to? If I’d had my way, everybody’s cuffs would have been taken off. People could have moved freely in their seats and talked quietly amongst themselves. Unfortunately, I could do nothing physically to alleviate the discomfort of those around me. My cuffs were as tight as everyone else’s.
But what I could do was face this moment with them, exercising clarity, awareness, and compassion. In this way I hoped that at least their pain would not go completely unnoticed or be dismissed out of hand. After all, like everyone else, the men sweating their way through yet another institutional shakedown deserved to have their plight recognized.
All too often, one’s humanity gets forgotten on the inside. People become “inmates” and nothing more. When that happens, it gets much easier to treat someone badly. An officer doesn’t have to think twice about making someone walk with a broken neck, turning the fans away on a hot summer day, or cursing and shouting orders at people already outnumbered and subdued by cuffs. Sadly, whether it’s an inmate or an officer, when we forget another’s humanity we end up giving up our own as well. Victimizing becomes ever easier.
By sitting with difficulty, however, we get an honest and unbiased look at the situation we’re facing and, by working with the compassion engendered by our practice, we can acknowledge and perhaps do away with some of the suffering of those around us. Perhaps as I experience the suffering of others through my practice, others may on some level experience the merit of that practice. Perhaps my awareness of others may begin to heal at least some of the suffering I have witnessed.
When we got back to our cell after another long march, my celly and I spent a good hour straightening out our property boxes and putting away the stuff that had been messed up during the shakedown. He was tired and in pain from his exertion, and while he described the pain and the frustration of going so long without treatment, I sat and simply listened.
It was all I could do for him at the moment. The act of listening, of allowing myself to really hear what he had to say, became another way to acknowledge his situation as a human being. While it wasn’t the surgery he needed, it was at least a chance to speak his mind and to know that someone cared enough to be present for him. If I accomplished nothing more that day, chapel was worth every moment. Sitting with difficulty always is.
Scott Darnell is a prisoner at the Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Illinois.