Thursday, September 13, 2012
Nelson Mandela, when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, was undoubtedly subjected to substantial hostility from the guards working around him, seeing him as a threat to their way of life. However, even in the worst of times, Mandela saw that glimmer of humanity that sustained his hope and gave him the strength to endure and he often spoke about that. But few would be able to truly appreciate just what he meant by his words, as very few will ever find themselves cast down into the bowels of a maximum-security prison that is intended to methodically break not only your body, but also your spirit, until you abandon all hope and submit to the masters of your fate.
I dare say that, although the circumstances may be different, I can find that common ground with Nelson Mandela. I can relate to his words as I too have spent not merely a few years but a few decades in solitary confinement under what is intended to be not merely physically, but psychologically oppressive conditions that take their inevitable toll in ways one cannot always see.
In all the years that I have spent ion Florida’s death row I have never seen the level of malice directed towards us by our captors as I do now. It’s a tangible presence that now hangs over us like an evil entity out to torment our very souls. I can not say how it took hold or why it has become what it is, but I can not deny this presence where once there was a level of mutual civility between the guards and convicts, now the guards almost always harbor a level of malice and even hate towards us that manifests itself in every way. Any guards who do dare show basic civility to death row prisoners are quickly transferred to another part of the prison. There’s no doubt that this level of malice comes from the very top.
As a result the environment we must live in has evolved into what could be described as a “cold war” zone. A few weeks ago I saw a sergeant who I’ve known for years and once respected because he treated us fairly. As he walked by my cell, I smiled and said “How you have been doing?” I only wanted to be civil. But his response spontaneously came back at me as if I had been physically assaulted “None of you f-----g business, inmate”! That was all he had to say, but more then I cared to hear. In that instant a man I once held in respect immediately lost all respect and in my eyes became the lowest form of scum that ever walked the earth. I quickly learned that this attitude was only too common among the guards working this unit now. What they simply cannot see is that by treating us with such malice, they only reduce themselves to something lower in the subhuman species. And I’m afraid that when one guard after other exhibits this same attitude for no apparent reason, then it doesn’t take long before the lines are clearly drawn and we come to see all the guards as the enemy.
But then in the most unexpected way my own attitude is put in check. A few weeks ago my elderly parents came up for their monthly visit. It was an extremely hot Florida summer day and as mom helped my father out of the car and into his wheelchair, she accidentally closed the car door, locking the car keys and their identification inside. They had no way to open the car door. Now standing there in the prison parking lot, it wouldn’t take long before the Florida sun took its inevitable toll. Both my parents are now quite elderly and not at all in their best health. It was at least 7 miles back to Starke, where the closest mechanic was who could be called to open the car door.
But then a sergeant saw them stranded there in the parking lot and went over to offer his assistance. He had to know they were visiting a prisoner as that would be the only reason for civilians to be at a prison parking lot on a Saturday morning. Despite the relentless heat bearing down upon him, that sergeant became as equally determined to help my parents and struggled for the better part of an hour to get their car door open. Another guard came over and offered my parents some water. Finally they succeeded in manipulating the door lock open and my parents retrieved their identification and were able to come in to visit me, and told me the story.
I was surprised and grateful to the unknown sergeant and officers who kindly helped my parents. But it also caused me to think about what Nelson Mandela said after his many years of imprisonment. In our world it is only too easy to allow ourselves to become filled with malice towards those on the other side of those steel bars, especially when the interaction between us and them is almost always an unpleasant experience. Like a dog in a cage, once you’ve been kicked so often by every guard that walks by, it’s only too easy to come to expect that from all of them.
But then there’s that one brief moment in time, when by a simple act at genuine humanity you are reminded that every person is an individual, and even if 100 guards show nothing but malice towards me for no apparent reason there are still that one or two that have found the strength to rise above this wall that exists between us. A simple act of kindness has restored that glimmer of hope in humanity, as at the end of the day it is our humanity and how that is manifested towards others that defines us as species and as along as there is still a few among us willing to follow that golden rule of doing onto others as we would want them to do onto us, then there is hope for all of us.
Florida death row
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