The Ark, The Covenant
By: TY EVANS, Contributing Writer
“You’ve got a thousand men in the water and maybe three life preservers. You better be okay with watching men drown. ”
– Melvin Tunstall, when I took a job in the prison law library.
Prison is isolation. Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously described Stalin-era prisons and labor camps as a string of islands – an archipelago – strewn across the Soviet Union’s landscape. Solzhenitsyn was referring to geographic isolation, but his metaphor was laden with a hidden dimension. Islands, as botanists and zoologists know, develop unique characteristics; and a string of islands, given time, will transform life into something much different from life on the mainland. Isolation (from the Italian isola, meaning “island”) limits available resources, and creates a challenging environment. Natural selection, with all its brutality implied, takes effect. New species emerge, and they thrive on their island but are maladapted to the outside world. In that respect, Solzhenitsyn’s island metaphor was more than geographic. It was ageless and perfect, more than he probably knew.
America’s prison archipelago has more islands and more prisoners than Stalin’s at its height, but a comparison to a totalitarian regime is probably unfair. Stalin’s motives were political, and his idea of due process devolved into “show trials,” a warped style of justice. Ethnic groups were targeted, and purges removed their voices from political discourse. The Soviet labor camps also satisfied an economic incentive, to construct public works and open rugged Siberia to development. Stalin’s gulags were purely exploitative. There’s nothing like that going on here, I presume – we have a moral, anti-crime motivation, defensible incentives, and a cautious system of due process so it’s harsh to lay the two countries’ records side by side.
Except, somehow, without a dictator in charge, we have still managed to amass more convicted prisoners than any country in history, and have the world’s highest incarceration rate, despite the existence of several countries we consider inhumanely oppressive. Just think, if we didn’t have democracy, wealth, and high ideals.. . how much worse would it be?
I am an inhabitant on one of the islands, and I have taken a job in the prison law library. In all my reading of Soviet literature, I don’t recall any reference to law libraries in the gulag, or jailhouse lawyers, or writs of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a construct of English law. Russian zeks. once screwed, stayed screwed, as far as I can tell. It’s not like that here, which is another reason why America’s high incarceration rate confounds me. Our system should correct injustice, act as a brake on wrongful convictions and excessive sentences, and drive the imprisonment rate downward.
My vision as a law library clerk is pretty clear, I want to see a prisoner who has been declared guilty beyond a reasonable doubt overturn his conviction and walk out the front gate, into an enraptured throng of photographers and reporters. I want to see this prisoner on the ten o’clock news, grateful for the restoration of his freedom, thanking the people responsible for his release, my name foremost among them. I want to expose the system’s injustice by freeing at least one wrongfully convicted man. One victory, maybe two or three, isn’t much to ask.
The opportunity to win in court seems enormous. Over several years in prison I have listened to hundreds of prisoners’ stories and recognized a legitimate thread of unfairness within their complaints. Common sense leads me to believe their cases are correctable, if only the right legal pressure is applied. On the surface, case after case seems fixable. We have over 1,700 men at Pendleton, and they have over 30,000 years left to do in prison. It should not be hard to find a case I can win.
Yet, every day, I feel some hesitation. My formal legal training consists of nothing more than writing legal descriptions of property, a product of my former career as a land surveyor. I will be working with murderers, gangsters, dope dealers, and the mentally ill, most of them with long sentences, histories of violence, and with nothing to lose. If I screw up their legal work, how will they react?
It’s Tuesday, cellhouse delivery day. A relentless wind penetrates our thin prison clothing and sleet assaults our faces as we four law library workers trot briskly to what the prisoners here describe as “a jail within a jail,” the G-cellhouse segregation unit at Pendleton Correctional Facility. We’re carrying postal bins stacked with legal books, blank forms, and printouts of case law, covered with plastic to keep everything dry. Our job is to provide legal assistance to our fellow prisoners in seg, men who have no physical access to the law library. The seg unit houses 268 on this frozen December day in 2011, 20 shy of capacity, and of those, only two or three have retained private counsel for their ongoing legal issues. The rest, if they have collateral attacks on their convictions pending or contemplated, pin their hopes on us, four guys with no legal training.
A ten-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire parallels the brown brick cellhouse, and we’re waiting at the gate, thirty feet from the cellhouse doors, hoping a guard will notice we’re waiting to get in. I adopt a downwind pose, and as we wait, my mind wanders. The cellhouse dimensions remind me of the ark built to withstand the Great Flood – proportional to Noah’s plan, 30 by 50 by 300 cubits, the color of faded gopher wood, seal the windows and maybe it’ll rise with its foundation and float. But no, it’s the anti-ark, filled with the unworthy, waiting for the Second Deluge, weighted down with two million pounds of steel, feeling gravity’s pull since 1923. The floor inevitably cracked, rendering this ark unseaworthy. Besides, it wasn’t built for animals two by two, innocent and destined to repopulate the Earth, but for humans one by one who’ve displayed their Hobbesian animal natures. One of the first occupants was John Herbert Dillinger, #14395, arriving without fanfare September 16, 1924, with an eleven-year commitment to think about. Just an ordinary prisoner, he transferred to Michigan City in 1929 and was released May 10, 1933, going on to a brief free life punctuated by fame/infamy. I doubt Dillinger ever imagined the cellhouse as watercraft.
It would take nearly 8,000 buildings like this one to house all of the prisoners in America, so I am looking at a tiny sliver of the mass incarceration phenomenon. On this day, America’s prisoner head count is 2,252,500 – one-and-a-half times the population of Manhattan, squeezed into an area one-fourth the size of Manhattan. They wouldn’t make it to the theater district. If prisoners formed their own state, it would be more populous than 15 other states, and command five electoral votes – if they were allowed to vote. The sheer numbers are hard to grasp.
Excerpt from Chapter 8, pages 190-192, of Fifty Million Years in Prison, by Ivan Denison.
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