Blast Zone

It was a sunny day. I was standing in line for chow. The guy ahead of me stretched lazily and yawned. “Where’s the punishment?” he said with a smirk. “They feed me three times a day. I got a bed and a T.V. And I can go to the weight room whenever I want.”

I looked at him. He was young and pumped-up and cocky. A distorted death’s head was tattooed on his arm. He’s probably not had anything better, I thought. Maybe he’s never known the love of home and family. If so, he’s right. You can’t punish somebody by taking away something they’ve never had. Compared to homelessness, life here is sweet, three hots and a cot.

For those of us with wives and children on the outside, the punishment of prison is painfully clear. It stares at us from photos taped to the concrete wall beside our bunks. “He who has a wife and children has given hostages to fate,” said Seneca. The criminal justice system takes advantage of this truth to inflict pain. In my more philosophical moments, I think it’s only just.  I caused emotional pain to someone and her family, why shouldn’t they cause emotional pain to me and my family; eye for eye, tooth for tooth, heartache for heartache, tear for tear?  

Not long after I came to prison, my little son, James, got caught up in the post-9/11 patriotic fervor. My wife told me she overheard him singing “Oh, beautiful for spaceship guys.”

He had a box of toy soldiers. He liked to play with those little green molded plastic army men. I was talking to him on the phone one day.

“Dad?” he asked. “I have all these fighting men. An’ they’re all in a box?” He had a way of making ordinary statements into questions. “An’, an’, when you come home, maybe you can help me sort them out?’

“Sure, I’d like that, James.”

“It’s gonna take a long time, ‘cause they’re all jumbled up.”

“That’s okay,” I say.

I wondered where those little green men would be in six years.  Will James still want me to help him sort them out when he’s eleven?  I hope so.  But, maybe by then he will be old enough to understand the army man principle of collateral damage. If you’re too near the bad guys, you will get hurt. It’s one of the messages prison sends to out families.

“Just drop your hopes and step away from the felon, son.”

Prison is designed to inflict emotional pain, years of it. It is intended to separate husbands from wives, fathers from children, to remove everything that gives real meaning and comfort to life. It’s the one-size-fits-all weapon of the criminal justice system. It’s easy to use, it has a wide blast zone, and it’s most effective on those who have the most to lose.

After I had been down about a year, my elder son, John, asked, “Dad, why are they keeping you in prison?”

I thought for a while, trying to find the words to explain to a seven-year old with an inquisitive mind.

“Daddy did something very wrong.  He hurt somebody,” I said. “He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. And, he’s really sorry for what he did. But now he has to be punished. Prison is sort of like a time-out for grown-ups.”

He nodded.  I could tell he was thinking of his own experiences with time outs.

“But, Dad?” he asked, “Why is it taking so long?”