The Walls: what prisoners call the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla
Freeworld: everything beyond the Walls
You’ve been owned by the State
since you can’t remember when,
body, mind and what’s left of your spirit
shackled to a prison more shattering
than the Walls, where at 18 you ended your life
in the freeworld. Hadn’t the big house
always beckoned, ever since the first time
you entered a home and found it
no refuge but a place of pain
and abuse, of neglect so battering
you ran straight into the arms
of a detention center
where at least no one pretended to care?
Who cared anyway about just another
juvenile delinquent with a mouth
to feed? It was hard to say
when mere delinquency — a word
that meant only that you’d left,
that you’d “left completely”
but left what was left to the imagination,
left home, left hope behind, left off caring —
turned from trying to survive to the criminal.
Homeless, hungry, no better educated
than an arrested ten-year-old, you
stole bread, stole something middle class
and valuable and we, a nation
of Javerts, were too righteous to split hairs
and see you. But somehow an innocent
was killed and now you are up against the wall
in Walla Walla, amidst the teem
and clangor of that crazy
noise-filled space, with no hope, no hope
of freedom and even if it kills you
this time you swear you will redeem yourself,
reclaim and save yourself from the death
of that which still remains humane
in you. One aching brick at a time,
some walls are built, others torn down.
Outside the canteen window,
snowy egrets build their nests,
a beaver slaps the water with its tail.
I don’t remember exactly what happened to place Andy (not his real name) and his sister in the care of the State, but I know that certain authorities found them huddled in the bathroom of their house or apartment, hungry and dirty and frightened, and from then on nothing was the same. They were separated, for one thing, and Andy lost track of his sister for years. Foster care was a travesty. Though there are, I know, many good foster families and truly giving and loving people who do fostering out of the goodness of their hearts, Andy did not meet those. Most of the time his foster parents only wanted the extra cash and he was lucky if he was fed adequately and had a bed of his own. He was often beaten and had to work for his food. Desperate, he made the first mistake, but one that probably set him on the road towards the situation he is in today. He ran away. But for a foster child, a ward of the State, running away is truancy, a juvenile offense and several such episodes, he was considered incorrigible and sent to reform school, where he learned only more survival tactics and more violence.
You see where I am going with this? It may be true that some boys rise above this, some boys find it within themselves to turn their lives around and make something of themselves…But I do not believe that they do it themselves. I believe that some caring adult, someone, anyone, steps in and makes them believe in themselves. Andy never had that. He knew only abuse and more abuse, in the many homes he resided in and later in the various juvenile centers to which he was sent.
Finally, in a home as a teenager, he turned 16 and , he was an adult in the eyes of the state, no longer their problem, and he was turned out onto the street, unceremoniously, with no skills, no money, voila, no — nothing, but the clothes on his back and was told to get a job and make a life…This is crazy of course. Totally and completely crazy. But that is what happens, at least in Andy’s state, and I suspect in more states than I want to know about. Where do you go when, on your 16th birthday, your foster family wakes you early in the morning, and instead of presenting you with a special birthday breakfast and a birthday present, tells you to dress and get lost, get going, you’re an adult now and not worth anything to them anymore? I cannot imagine what on earth I would do.
Andy fell back on the skills he learned in reform school, like petty thievery (how else was he to get food?) and lying. And he ran with a crowd doing much the same thing. I do not know where or how he coped otherwise, nor where he slept, whether it was indoors or out of doors, nor for how long. I only know that at one point things escalated, and there was a gun involved, or perhaps it was a knife, but in any event, an innocent person was stabbed, or shot, and of the entire group only Andy was apprehended. But Andy was no snitch, and so he said nothing when pressed to tell who his “accomplices” had been, not even when threatened with a life sentence. which is what, in the end he received: Life without HOPE of parole. At age 18. Life without HOPE…
What does that sort of sentence mean, precisely? Well, for one, it means Maximum Security, because all long sentences are put into Max, esp lifers. It also means that at least in Andy’s prison, they wouldn’t bother to educate him or allow him to study for his GED, let alone a college degree. Why waste the money or the time on someone who was never getting out, never returning to the freeworld? It meant a lot of things, but mostly it meant hopelessness. And that was the hardest thing to deal with. That and the fact that you owned nothing, that you could count on keeping nothing, that nothing was yours. At any moment, everything you had in your possession could be confiscated, trashed during a cell search or simply ruined by flooding of the tier by prisoners protesting various atrocious conditions of their incarceration.
Andy knew that if he was to survive, he had to give up all attachment to things, to everything outside himself, and to know that he was himself, a person, and that no one could take that away from him. He had to know that he could rely on himself alone, and to trust that, no matter what they did to him. And they did plenty. You can read about the Hole, but what really happens there, and even beforehand is truly an abomination. During a cell extraction for instance, the squad, preparing to overpower the resistant convict, terrifies by virtue of their appearance and their “firepower.” To say that pepper spray is used is to deliberately mislead the public into thinking that the procedures are relatively harmless. A huge blast in the face of a chemical that makes one feel as if one is suffocating and cannot see is applied through the door window, until the convict is gasping and on his knees. Then the real extraction occurs, with an entire team subduing the prisoner, hogtying him in some instances, and removing him from the cell, which will later be trashed during a search.
People are disappeared, people are beat up, people die during a cell extraction, or simply when the guards are angry or sick of someone they can’t easily control and the death is hushed up. People die and nothing is said when a new prisoner is shown to the bunk they once occupied…
Andy has written a book length manuscript about his experience in the worst prison in his state, and the entire book follows a prisoner through one day in the life of the main character. I think it is magnificent. Andy went from a 7th grade education to writing like a college grad, teaching Spanish, and many other accomplishments, including authoring two book-length manuscripts and a full-length play. I am hoping to find a publisher to take a look at his novel/ memoir. If you know of anyone who might be interested, would you please get in touch with me?