The Return of the Felon

I’m writing an autobiography, the working title of which is Writing Straight with Crooked Lines. There is a certain amount of archeology in writing a memoir. Shovel in hand, I’ve been exploring old files that I haven’t looked at in decades. One of the discoveries today was an article I wrote for Commonweal just after I was released from prison after serving just over half of a two-year sentence for burning draft records. I see my writing style in those days was somewhat Dan Berrignaesque… Jim / 1 July 2019

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by Jim Forest / Commonweal / July 10, 1970

No matter how monastic the convict, the best thing about going to prison is the joy there is in leaving. “Go to prison,” I’m tempted to say. “There is no other way to have one of the best experiences life has to offer: getting out.”

Hard not to be ?ippant about it. It’s been less than two weeks since the classic gate scene was performed for my bene?t: “Well, Forest,” the gate guard actually said, “it certainly is encouraging whenever I see someone leave this way.” (It wasn’t long ago that several climbed over the high double fence, the barbed wire retaining only one faded prison khaki winter jacket.) “I do hope you’ll never be back.”

And so do I.

The reasons — best said by analogy — are several:

Prisons are small socialist states of the least imaginative, most bureaucratic sort. The maximum-security prison, with its layers of barred cages, is perhaps Albania. The medium-security prison (correctional institution!) is post-occupation Czechoslovakia. The multitude of minimum-security labor camps, depending on staff, range in quality from Sweden (very rare) to East Germany (common). Wisconsin reportedly has one of the better prison systems, which is akin to the likelihood that once upon a time there were “better” stretch racks. In any event, it is likely that most states maintain prison systems that are more toward the Albania/East Germany end of the spectrum.

Or, not gray welfare states, they are Nazi schools. In the century-old limestone walls of Wisconsin’s maximum-security prison, Waupun, a penitentiary that could have been the set for any James Cagney Big House movie, one of the ?rst questions asked by a fellow con was, “How do you like our kindergarten?” That’s it, I thought; the thing about this place is you’re treated like a kid. But then chewing on the idea, as one does during those era-long hours alone in a Volkswagen-sized cell, I realized that most kindergartens were considerably better and more human-respecting than this. The difference was that this was a compulsory, Reich-run, live-in kindergarten for Jewish 5-year-olds. And that realization still has the ring of truth to it.

But there is yet a better one. Go see Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 again, the part between earth apes with bone hammers and genetic rebirth in the light-show fall into electri?ed sheaves of day-glo wallpaper, the part of space ships and space stations. Both are variations on a theme, though the space station’s wheel-shape is more appropriate to the prison essence. Again there are elements of compulsion — the on-going programming, the making of one’s life into a computer-digestible punch card. Again there is the tyranny of state — stainless steel robot breast brushing in upon the terrifying vulnerability of private consciousness and ?esh. Again there is the Nazi-boarding-school sterility — as if a freeze-drying of the genitals.

But in space stations and prisons, the essence is more pure. The bed is literally empty. The programming is complete. The Hal computer, though a less conversational model, is everywhere in evidence. And there is that overwhelming circularity.

The menu is circling — in one prison its orbit requiring more days than another, but always the equinox returns, the seasons of spaghetti and breaded pork chop renewed, a kind of greasy spring.

The programs are circling. The same class seems to be eternally recycling in the prison school. The same group-counseling session is forever on the edge of learning that children believe their parents and that prisoners were instructed from birthday onward that they weren’t worth the forceps that pulled them from the womb. The same desk, the same ?le cabinet, the same license plate, the same Stop sign, the same khaki shirt forever being re-made in the prison factories…

The warden is circling: he beat his desk with his ?st yesterday and yelled, “I am the warden!” And he’ll do it again today and he’ll say it again tomorrow. He’ll say it before and after he says there is no race problem in his prison, that we don’t punish, that the hole isn’t the hole (it’s intensive therapy), that there is no erosion of staff morale, that things are getting better, that we don’t care what you write or say so long as you say it according to regulations and through proper channels…

The rituals are circling: between such and such a minute, the mail is to be had, the meal to be eaten, the clean khakis to be gotten, the monthly fruit order to be submitted, the canteen purchase to be completed, the room cleaning to be performed.

Time is delineated in circlings: “Only 43 more room inspections!” “Only 13 more fruit orders!” “Only 214 more sets of khakis!”

There is an even more signi?cant similarity: it is the prison’s distance from the planet Earth. It is as if the walls and fences were more measurable in light hours than in yards.

In 2001, there was the birthday transmission to one of the bored astronauts, a stiff family event complete with the blowing out of candles, all received in color on a screen in immaculate quarters forever immune to the roots of grass, and all arriving via the delay to which even light is subject. The transmission seems less real than a chapter from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

There is that mythical quality about events beyond prison. Surely there is a conspiracy of Tolkiens out there, a committee that does nothing but fabricate a myth-context that is supposed to be a warming-mitten around the penitential space station? Imagine! This letter is alleged to be from a person who doesn’t live in prison! This newspaper supposedly describes a world without cell inspections, a world where it is possible to sleep in company with others!

Hobbits are more real.

And so we believe and yet we don’t believe.

And the sense of existence, of I-ness disintegrates. However large the rock upon which one’s name had been carved, the rock cracks and then crumbles and the sand that’s left is desperately kept in an envelope. The self tries to believe that once this was a rock and once there was a name on it — my name! Or was it? Am I dreaming? Is the sand real? Was there ever a rock? My name?

Minds kept long times in cells know too powerfully the energy of dreams, too well the reality of fantasy.

What is real are the bars. The cell is real. The warden is real. The form requesting permission to write an unauthorized correspondent is real.

And yet there are those who, in more than body, survive prison, even ripen. It is a better proof of the existence of God than any in the Summa. Whatever answer is currently fashionable on the question of miracles, miracles remain the best proof that God gives. That this ?nger still strikes typewriter keys, that the felon-writer still imagines communication—there you have a miracle, and no small one.

Jim Forest, just paroled from the Wisconsin prison system after a year’s punishment for participation in draft-record destruction, is co-chairman of the Catholic Peace Fellowship.

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