Attached is Mike's entry for the annual 2013-2014 PEN Prison Writing Contest. *This story received an honorable mention in the memoir category. The essay appeared also in MinutesBeforeSix
It is there in the dimly lit shadows of the darkness that I find my comfort within this concrete crypt I am condemned to not merely live, but ever so very slow die, within. I could simply reach up above my steel bunk and pull the long string that dangles down from the fixture above and so easily flood the confines with that artificial light, but I choose not to. The darkness is my sanctuary, where despite all the misery and chaos around me, I can retreat and sit silently and find my solitude in this solitary cell on Florida’s infamous Death Row. The brightness of that light would only be unnecessarily intrusive, an unwelcome invasion that would only serve to cruelly deprive me of those stolen moments in time, in which I am able to at least momentarily detach from the reality around me and retreat back into my own little corner, in my own little world.
I already know only too well what the light world would reveal as all day of every day now, for not merely months, or a few years, but for decade after seemingly endless decade, and yet another decade still, I have sat in this cold, concrete cage and I know it only as a condemned man can, so intimately well that even when I close my eyes, I can count the number of concrete blocks on each wall, I can still see that plain and deliberately featureless, faded soft pastel beige walls, accented only by the dark, heavy wool horse blanket that I am required to cover my bunk with each morning, as God forbid I might be tempted to sleep a few hours during the day and then there’s the black bars at the front of the cell, each bar spaced precisely four inches apart, which allow me to look outward a few short feet upon yet another wall of heavy steel bars, separating the outer catwalk and not too far beyond that, the fortified narrow windows, long ago covered with dust and debris, and yet in defiance, still barely allowing just enough light through to know when it is day and when it becomes night.
During the warmer months, these narrow windows are opened just enough to allow a bit of air to flow through. From time to time small birds will venture in and awaken me from my early morning sleep with their chirping, which at first I found inviting, as if they brought life itself to this culture of cold death. But at some point along the path of time, this incessant chirping became unbearable, as if their only intent was to tease and taunt me and have come to so cruelly mock the man in the gilded cage before they then simply fly away and I find myself being driven by an overwhelming anger within me to yell and scream at these demonic winged monsters and even throw small items at the window screen to chase them away. The birds no longer come to visit as much and now I find myself missing my little friends.
Once upon a time this relentlessly monotonous micro-environment I am entombed within could be brought to life with a few photos, faded reflections of a life that once was, but the powers that be decreed that any sign of life hung from the walls was somehow a “security” threat and not even one photo would be allowed. To violate this draconian rule would result in the loss of the photo and an immediate transfer to “lock-up” and the loss of the very few “privileges” we might be afforded. Given that few privileges are even allowed, this “punishment” would almost be ironically meaningless, if not for the disruption to this methodical routine we come to almost religiously cling to.
I’m told that long term solitary confinement under such objectively oppressive physical conditions and the deliberate deprivation of any meaningful interaction with others will inevitably drive even the strongest of men insane and I’m sure there are many who believe this to be true. Some might even argue convincingly that this inevitable insanity is the objective as when the monsters of my fate cannot break the body, then they become that much more determined to break the spirit. But nobody yet has told me just where that ever so elusive line is that separates “sanity” from the slippery slide down the proverbial “rabbit hole” leading downward into that bottomless abyss of madness, in which seems that each of us is expected to descend is?
Each week the prison psychologist will make his rounds of the death row unit and always without even so much as stopping, do the required “welfare check” on each of us, as the state has a vested interest in proving we have not become “insane” and we all know that our psychological state is irrelevant as even those who have long ago slipped beneath the murky surface of insanity will be automatically assigned a “normal” rating each week, as any other conclusion that might dare to call our sanity into question might later serve to obstruct the state’s objective of putting us to death. Becoming insane and being recognised as insane are two totally different things and prison staff who conduct these psychological drive-bys are part of the pretence.
But then I smile as I struggle to understand just who these people are who so pretentiously proclaim themselves to be “normal” and want to insist that insanity is such a bad thing. If I have learned nothing else in the too many years that I have been entombed in my solitary crypt awaiting the uncertainty of my fate, it is that my selfish??? structured psychosis provides my mental escape from this thing they want to claim to be “reality” and that it is this reality that sucks, not insanity.
When I sit silently in that comforting darkness of my solitary crypt, I can often listen to the many others around me in this monolithic warehouse of tormented souls, or on the increasingly rare occasion when I might reluctantly venture out for a few hours of “outdoor” recreation on the razor-wired concrete pad they call our “recreation yard” and am able to see and even look into the windows of the lost souls of condemned men among me, I find that I truly do envy those who now have that empty look in their eyes, those who have already been blessed by the detachment from that burden of reality that still weighs down heavily upon those of us not so fortunate.
For them, they are the lucky ones, no longer imprisoned by this cruel world around them. For them, the past, the present and even the future and with it the uncertainty of their judicially imposed fate have lost all meaning and although their physical body may remain condemned to that solitary cage, their “spirit” is free to fly away and soar high above the stormy clouds and into that picture perfect blue sky beyond and as I witness their existence in a world of their own making, do I come to appreciate that insanity is something any sane man in my predicament can only envy and I as agaon retreat back into the recesses of my voluntary darkness do I find myself praying upon a long deaf god that I too one day soon might be blessed by this gift of insanity, so that I too might find my own reprieve from the harsh truth of reality.
Then there’s that whimsical wisp of hope that keeps me pushing forward and I am reminded of a particular scene in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” in which the seasoned convict (played by Morgan freeman) is sitting at the table in the prison “chow hall”, looking up at the fresh meat fate cast down upon them and offers this profound truth, that every convict will inevitably learn in their own way, …..”hope will drive you insane”. Perhaps that is why in Dante’s “Inferno”, as the desperate soul slowly stepped through that passageway leading down to into the very depths of hell itself, he took a moment to absorb those words enscribed above that portal into hell – “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here”. And yet, despite that paradox of clinging to hope as a means of sustaining the strength to survive, yet knowing that each time that hope is crushed, insanity steps another step toward you, so many still so desperately cling to their hope.
But can hope drive a man insane if what he truly hopes for is insanity? Only the helplessly naïve would think that life and death was black and white, as only by being condemned to living within the very shadows of death, while hopelessly bearing witness as one by one around you are put to death in such an arbitrary and utterly unpredictable manner, can you come to understand that death itself comes in an infinite array of shades of grey – and even long before they might come to drag the next man away do we know that physical death too often follows long after the man within that fleshy vessel has already dies a slow and tortuous death of the spirit within.
To understand the therapeutic value of my voluntary darkness, one must first appreciate that death too often is not a singular event, but a prolonged journey towards that finality that is marked by the degradation of the inner-will with each stumbling step. In my voluntary darkness, I have come to know that a man’s worst fate is not to be condemned to death, but as if peeling away the layers of a onion, each day is another step in which that will to live is maliciously stripped away until only the inner core itself remains, a mere fragment of the man that once was. With each layer, that light of life within the windows of the soul dims just a bit more and the world within takes on a darker shade of grey and only in our arrogance do we attempt to define the precise moment of a physical death.
Only by attempting to understand why a condemned man might be relentlessly haunted by such thoughts might another understand why the darkness has become my friend and why as I so willingly surrender to that darkness, do I place such value in the power to be able to choose whether to pull that string or not. Each day I alone decide whether in that moment I will live or die as in that voluntary darkness I inflict death upon the reality that imprisons me and in the shadows of my refuge, I find a fleeting sense of peace, knowing only too well that in the coming days, or weeks, or months they will soon enough come to lead me away and as they place me in that solitary cell, just outside that solid steel door that leads into the execution chamber, I will no longer be blessed with the power to retreat into that comforting refuge of my voluntary darkness, but will instead be dragged into a brightly lit room, then strapped upon a gurney, as just a few feet away, on the other side of a glass wall, a small crowd of witnesses will have willingly gathered to silently witness my state sanctioned execution.
As I then lay physically restrained and powerless upon that gurney, as those who have so methodically stalked my death for so many years nod to the masked executioner standing but a few feet away, as he pushes down on the plunger that will send that lethal cocktail of chemicals into my veins, and as I draw that final breath, I will once again find comfort and peace as the light fades away and as that darkness of death descends down upon me, the temptation of pulling that string will be no more. Just as in my solitary cell I have been condemned to live alone, I too will now die alone and in the end, darkness will be my only remaining friend.