Conjunction of events at the mailbox yesterday afternoon: I received a remarkable letter from a prisoner I’ve known for some years who is 42 and locked-in (in what is called Administrative Segregation or Ad Seg–spends his life literally in a cage surrounded by the din of other men locked into cages all around him); and I received my rental of Julian Schnabel’s brilliant production of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly , which is about Jean Dominique Bauby, who had “Locked-in Syndrome” (he could hear and understand everything, but he was completely paralyzed and unable to move any part of his body but his left eye) as a result of a stroke he suffered when he was 42.
The letter from “Adam” (not his name–he is so vulnerable to abuse from guards and prison administrators that I won’t mention his first name or state where he’s incarcerated) is, as all his letters always are, good-natured and folksy, as if he were writing from a resort in the Catskills. On p. 2 of his 5-page handwritten letter, he writes:
It has taken me all week to get this far in this letter….I feel brain-dead. Almost every night the guards will come through here and go cell-to-cell chaining our feet and hands together and pull us out of our cells so they can make sure we’re not cutting our way out. A couple of doors down is a maniac who is supposedly one of the system’s top five most dangerous people. Of course he loves to use the fear the guards have of him as a means of playing jokes. Tonight they brought this new woman guard in here where all the most psychopathic, dangerous inmates live because she has fears of working in the dorms (where the model inmates live). Of course our hands are cuffed behind our backs before we exit the cell, and once the cell door opens we are instructed to kneel while shackles are placed on our ankles. Occasionally men break out of the cuffs and raise hell.
Adam guesses the other guards brought this woman to his wing of the prison to make her “reconsider her prospects.” My guess is they wanted to impress her with their macho prowess in being able to control these violent prisoners, given chains, truncheons, pepper-spray, and guns.
Anyway, they pulled this maniac out of his cell and put him in a steel cage while the new girl searched his cell. There are five or six officers with her, so she feels safe enough. But once they brought the maniac out of his cage, he began yelling and lunging, jumping up and down while the officers strained to hold him. He was complaining that she messed up his cell. Needless to say, she was scared. I’ll be amazed if she comes back.
Adam continues, a few paragraphs later:
After six months [in this particular branch of Ad Seg] I’m beginning to make some progress. I was finally allowed to buy a fan, radio, and a pair of tennis shoes. [Adam has family members who are allowed to send him up to $50 a month for these "luxuries," which it takes months to acquire, even if he has the money.] The radio helps. Reading is great, but it doesn’t block out the insanity. Take this man who lives on the row above me. He hears “women on the mic” talking to him. All day and all night he talks to these imaginary women. He sleeps so little that he has dark bags under his eyes. Everyone back here cusses him and calls him a faggot and a slew of other things you wouldn’t want to know. When he isn’t talking to the “ladies on the mic” he’s arguing with the men who call him names, yelling matches that last for hours. They tell me he was raped and since coming to Seg he has undergone several stages of insanity. I can hear him changing for the worse all the time, and I feel sorry for him, but it does me more good to put on my headphones and black it all out while I read or write.
In one of his earlier letters, Adam told me he was reading Papillon, in which the author describes prison as “A system of repression unworthy of a civilized nation.”
The Schnabel film is remarkable, as is the story it’s based on. The camera positions the audience inside the body of the paralyzed man, privy to his thoughts. He was a womanizer, a bon vivant, and the film does nothing to sanitize him. Max von Sydow plays Bauby’s 92-year-old father, and there is a scene between the two of them that is one of the greatest love scenes I’ve ever seen, equal to the Redgrave/O’Toole scene from Venus. Bauby says the two parts of his being he can move are his memory and his imagination. His intelligence and sense of humor save his story from being lugubrious, and by the use of flashbacks and what would be called magical realism if it were on paper, we get an amazing film journey into hell. The sound track includes an incredible Tom Waits song that comes in at just the right moment to rip your heart out. Very powerful. The film is based on the book of the same name which Bauby “wrote” with an assistant who spoke all the letters of the alphabet to him; he would blink when she got to the letter he wanted. After I watched the movie, I went online and ordered a copy of the book sent to Adam and requested a copy for myself to read from the Portland Library. I’m number seventy-five on the list of people waiting to read the library’s fifteen copies of it, so Adam will probably get his before I get mine–but that’s OK. I have plenty to read.
Tags: American prisons, Books and Movies, Henri Charriere, Julian Schnabel, prisoners, Prisons and Prisoners, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Tom Waits