By Donella Meadows
–March 16, 1995–
The other day I got a letter from an inmate in a maximum security prison.
It was a second letter, actually. He had written to me before about the violence of commercial television. I sent that letter on to a friend who is working on a TV project. She replied, and he is writing a piece for her newsletter.
In this follow-up he wrote: “My heartfelt thanks for not only reading my prior communication but also for not dismissing it as the ranting and raving of a convicted, crazed incorrigible. Enclosed is a picture of a cell-block here and a poem. I send them to express what is able to occur even within this austere, adverse environment.”
The picture shows a wall of cells stacked one on top of another like the cages that hold immobilized chickens in an egg factory. Human hands grip some of the bars. Feet stick out of others. Bored bodies lean against the grillwork.
The poem was written not by my correspondent, but by another inmate named Craig P. Datesman. It is titled “#115 Cell: An Oasis.” It says, in part:
“Who has not felt the need for a shade tree in the scorching sun or an open service station on a desolate road late at night? Who can deny the comfort of an afternoon in Fairmount Park after a morning in Center City? And so it goes in #115 Cell, an oasis in an institution.
“Outside the cell the conmen with their carnival barking voices are always on the prowl. Ever searching for the weak or innocent, they circle and converge like vultures on a carcass.
“But inside my cell, sounds of a symphony fill the air. The music is soft and sweet to my ears.
“Out on the cellblock it is dirty and cluttered, and a certain madness fills the air. July brings the heat. Tempers flare like fireworks, and the guards must be summoned to extinguish the flames of animosity and resentment.
“#115 Cell is clean and organized, a place to rest and contemplate the harsh climate which surrounds me. My temperament is calm. Concentration comes easily. I am at peace with my Maker, and I thank Him for this abode.”
The thanks, the picture, the poem stopped me. Somehow, in the midst of today’s vicious public discourse, I had forgotten that prisoners are not statistics and not monsters; they are human beings with hearts and souls.
It’s terrible to have forgotten that. But I can’t remember when I last heard anything that might lead me to believe that an inmate might listen to symphonies, thank a correspondent for taking him seriously, or thank God for a few square feet of refuge in an institution of vultures. The only convicts I ever hear about are fearsome and faceless (except that their faces are black). They are all alike. They are inhuman.
Somehow our politics has devolved into a contest to see who can talk toughest about criminals. In polls we list crime as our nation’s worst problem. In fact the rate of violent crime is going down. The rate at which violent crimes are reported on TV has tripled, however, and that is one reason for our national hysteria. The other reason is the cynical politicians of both parties who whip up our fears for their own gain.
The consequence is a nation consumed with vengeance. We won’t fix our crumbling schools, but we are allocating $10.5 billion to build more prisons. The number of Americans in cages has just topped the one million mark. Half of them committed no violence; they are there on drug charges.
I know there are some unfortunates in our society, as in all societies, who are criminally insane, incurably brutal, so badly injured in mind and soul that they must be kept away from the world of decency. But why put even the most frightening of these people into places that validate their own depraved view of the world? And why throw in with them, without discrimination, those who still have within them a poem or a prayer?
Discrimination, in the positive sense of the word, has disappeared from our debate and our policies. We don’t discriminate between the pathological killer and the confused youngster who desperately wants a refuge of order and sweetness in a heartless world. We can’t entertain the idea that some people who run afoul of the law might be savable without being ridiculed as “soft on crime.” We have stopped using our intelligence and our humanity to define a balance between mercy and retribution. We offer ourselves only a stark, false choice: soft-heartedness or hard-headedness. Whose side are you on, the criminal’s or the victim’s? You can’t choose both. No middle ground.
We seem to have lost the ability to discriminate on any subject. We can’t acknowledge that there are honest, struggling folks who use welfare to get back on their feet, and then there are indolent drifters who would gladly take public handouts their whole lives long. We can’t admit that some environmental laws are unnecessary nuisances and some are essential for our health and safety. We have to portray government as all good or all bad, and the same with corporations, and conservatives, and liberals, and anything else we talk about.
Without discrimination we can only deal with criminals by descending to their own worst levels of brutality. And so we take a million people with hearts and souls and lock them up as if they were chickens. We shouldn’t even do that to chickens.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995