By Heart

At nineteen,one cannot grasp the depth of a no-parole life sentence.There is nothing to compare it to, other than death. At nineteen , one does not think he will do a life sentence. A life sentence does not sink in immediately. It can take seven to ten years to begin to understand. Life without parole is too big to grasp, or come to grips with, in the moment.
I sat down to breakfast my first morning in prison in a dining hall stuffed with prisoners. The noise and the mood of the place was maddening, like stepping into a huge, dark cave full of hungry bats. I could not find any familiar spot inside of myself able to relate to the bars, the concrete, and the steel, to the guns, and the guards barking out orders to hurry and eat.

I was ignorant about all prison ways. I came from the desert, the natural world – purple and red clay mountains, open spaces and there was nothing natural about cells. Even the air was tainted, and twisted with unrealness, fleeting hope, and violent unrest. I was naive, and also unconnected to any inner spirit. But my will to survive took over. I learned quickly to keep my laughter, smiles, and feelings inside and hidden behind a mask. Silence and dead-eyed frowns kept the strangers and guards at bay.
Besides, what cause was there for smiles and laughter? I had killed someone. There was nothing to talk about and no one to talk to, no one to hold my hand, nothing to dream or hope for. Never had I been so alone in a crowd. I felt I walked among bodies in one dimension while I strolled in another.
What could I compare this new life to? Perhaps the flood control tunnels under railroad station we roamed in as kids, the way those tunnels shrunk and grew darker and more suffocating the deeper we descended. Could I compare my life in prison to Campy, the greyhound that caught five rabbits, but died slowly at home under the shade tree never catching his breath? Or could I compare this excistence to hiding under our green house? I watched everything,then, a completely unseen little boy. As though I was invisible, which I wanted to be.”

Excerpt from “By Heart - Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives” a double memoir by Spoon Jackson and Judith Tannenbaum, published 2010

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